When it comes to sun exposure and sun protection, there are a lot of questions to answer. How much sun-basking is too much? Are there benefits to not wearing sunscreen sometimes? What kind of protection does sunscreen provide? How do I choose the safest and most effective brand? And what ingredients should I avoid?
What are the pros and cons of sun exposure?
Pro: Vitamin D
Vitamin D is an essential hormone for healthy bones, immune function and blood cell formation. Luckily, your body produces vitamin D every time you step into the sunlight. Easy, right? Just keep in mind that you don’t need much unprotected sun exposure to meet your needs. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 5-15 minutes of unprotected sun exposure a few times a week is all that’s required to maintain healthy vitamin D levels.
Cons: Skin Damage & Skin Cancer
Ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) are the two types of sun rays that travel through the earth’s atmosphere and shine directly on your skin. We just learned that a little unprotected fun in the sun is good for you, but what about longer stretches of time? UVA and UVB rays are responsible for the golden tan so many people try to attain each year. You might think that this sun-kissed tone is healthy. Think again. When your skin darkens, it’s actually a warning sign that your body is trying to prevent further DNA damage. This is just one example of the ways UVA and UVB impact your health.
UVA rays penetrate beneath the top layer of your skin. They’re mostly to blame for wrinkles, leathery skin, sagging and sun spots. These can bust through clouds on a gloomy day, seep through your car windows, and they can even sneak through some clothing. Although UVA rays are less likely to give you a sunburn, they’re still linked to increasing your risk of skin cancer because they can damage your basal and squamous skin cells.
UVB rays impact the top layer of your skin. They’re the main contributor to skin cancer and your worst enemy when it comes to sunburns. UVB rays are strongest between 10am and 4pm, especially during the summer months. Clearly UVA and UVB rays are nothing to take lightly.
How well does sunscreen protect your skin?
If you’re relying on the sunscreen to protect you from all the risks of sun exposure, you’re not seeing the big picture. Sun protection is two-fold. Safe sunscreen plus safe sun habits. It’s still very important, but slathering some on once a day doesn’t give you a free pass.
What do the letters and numbers mean on sunscreen bottles?
Sun Protection Factor (SPF)
SPF only protects you from sunburn (UVB rays). When you see the SPF number on a bottle, think of it as a measure of time. If your skin would typically burn after 10 minutes in the sun, a sunscreen with SPF 15 should allow you to stay in the sun 15 times longer (150 minutes) before your skin would start to burn. But that number doesn’t take your activities into account. Sweating, swimming and other physical exercise can lower the effectiveness of your sunscreen’s SPF, which means you may need to apply it more often.
UVA & UVB Protection
Your sunscreen may be protecting you from sunburn by blocking UVB rays (if you’re re-applying it often enough and using a sufficient amount), but you’re still vulnerable to skin damage if you’re not protected from UVA rays as well.
How to select a safer sunscreen
When choosing any personal care product, be your own health advocate. There are chemicals in the products on your drugstore’s shelves that have been linked with cancer, birth defects and a variety of other health issues. Sunscreen is not exempt.
Here are a few red flags to look out for when scanning sunscreen labels:
• Vitamin A (retinyl palmitate or “retinol”): Linked to increased cancer cell growth.
• Oxybenzone: Hormone disrupter—experts caution against using it on children.
• Powder or spray mineral-based sunscreens (usually on ingredient label as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide): These ingredients are typically safe in lotion form, but can cause internal damage if inhaled.