By now, you’ve probably seen pictures of what can happen from too much sun exposure; skin cancer, ugly brown splotches, and (worst of all, I’m sure you’ll agree) wrinkles! So why all the confusion about SPF (Sun Protection Factor)? You just slather it on when you’re at the beach or by the pool and you don’t have to worry about looking like your grandmother, right?
Well, not exactly. As a licensed esthetician, I’ve discovered that it’s a bit more complicated than that. When determining which SPF is best for you, I always advise my clients to consider factors such as skin type, patience (in other words, are you really going to wait 30 minutes to go outside?), skin tone, skin concerns, and texture preference.
My clients are constantly asking me about contradicting information about SPF that they’ve received from different sources (magazine articles, blogs, Dr Oz shows), so I’m going to address their top 3 questions here to help clear things (especially your skin) up. My former college professors will be very proud that I’ve also included links to my sources below so you can see that these are not just my inane ramblings (well, most of them).
1. “What’s the difference between chemical and physical sunscreens and which one is better?” The word “chemical” can have some very scary connotations; in this case, it simply means that the sunscreen absorbs the rays of your sun so your skin does not. Some of the most common chemical sunscreen ingredients are Octylcrylene, Avobenzone, Helioplex, and Mexoryl. In order for this type of sunscreen to be most effective, it must be applied at least 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure to give it time to absorb into your skin. Chemical sunscreens also filter out both UVA (aging) and UVB (burning) rays, so they are helpful if you’re trying to prevent premature aging.
On the flip side, physical sunscreens do not need time to absorb into your skin because they stay on the surface and simply reflect sunlight away from your skin, like a mirror. The two most common physical sunscreen ingredients are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. If you choose to use a physical blocker, make sure you choose one with either zinc oxide or both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, as titanium dioxide protects against UVB rays only, not UVA.
2. “What number SPF do I need?” This is a fairly simple one; the lighter your skin, the more protection you need. In my case, for example, it takes me only 10 minutes to start to burn in direct sunlight (yes, I actually timed it once), so I multiply that by the SPF number to determine how many minutes of protection it will provide. In short, an SPF 30 will give me 300 minutes, or 5 hours, of protection before I start to burn.
Even though this sounds like a lot, keep in mind that different factors can reduce that number, such as sweating, oily skin, etc, so it’s always good to reapply every two hours when in direct sunlight.
Also, as I previously mentioned, burning is only one side effect of the sun, so always look for an SPF that is broad spectrum, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays, to prevent premature aging.
3, “Don’t I need the Vitamin D that the sun provides?” The short answer is yes, of course, the sun has many positive effects on the body, such as bone strengthening and mood elevation.
The problem is that you only need about 20 minutes of sun exposure to get your daily dose of Vitamin D, and since no SPF provides 100% protection there will always rays that sneak through. If you are still concerned, a daily supplement of 600 IU is a good way to make sure you stay healthy.
There will be much more to come about SPF in future posts. For now, wear at least an SPF 15 on a daily basis and you’ll thank me later!
Question of the day: What’s the most bizarre myth you’ve ever heard about SPF and who told it to you?