Sun Protection Facts You Need to Know

18 08 2011


Heidi Kelchner
Her Sports + Fitness

If you’ve been less than diligent about slathering on sunscreen in the past, consider this: Melanoma is now the most common cancer in women age 25 to 29, and second only to breast cancer in women 30 to 34, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

Protecting your skin takes just a little planning and shopping before heading outdoors. With the number of quality sunscreens, bronzing products and self-tanners (much safer than getting a suntan) available, there’s no excuse for damaging your skin.

Here’s how to beat the sun — May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, by the way — this summer and for the rest of your life:

Skin Care 101: wear sunscreen or sunblock!To protect against skin cancer and premature aging, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen or sunblock that protects against both UVA and UVB rays with an SPF of 15 or higher. UVB rays pose risk to top layers of skin and lead to sunburn (think “B” for burn). UVA rays affect under layers of skin, which leads to premature aging (think “A” for aging). All sunscreens protect from UVB rays but only broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both.

For immediate protection, go for the block. While many people use “sunscreen” and “sunblock” interchangeably, there’s a difference. Sunscreen contains chemicals that absorb UV rays before they damage the skin. Sunblock contains particles that act as a physical wall against UV rays. While sunscreen must be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure, sunblock begins working immediately. Dermatologists say experiment with what works best with your skin and plan accordingly.

Be an early bird or night owl. The AAD also recommends avoiding sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. For athletes, this means performing outdoor workouts in the early morning or evening hours. For those who must be outdoors during peak exposure, take extra precaution. If you’ll be in the sun longer than an hour, opt for an SPF of 30 or higher, since sweat can quickly dilute your level of protection.

SPF equals time to burn. The SPF, or sun-protection factor, number indicates how much additional time you can stay outside without burning. In other words, if your skin would normally burn in 10 minutes without sunscreen, wearing an SPF of 15 means you can be outside 15 times longer, or 150 minutes (2.5 hours), before your skin burns.

Reapplying is critical, but don’t be fooled. Reapplying sunscreen ensures you are getting the original SPF you desired, but it doesn’t mean you’ll get extra coverage. Using the example above, if you reapply SPF 15 after two hours, you’ll be avoiding dilution from sweat and ensuring you receive the maximum protection of 2.5 hours. Adding more sunscreen does not equal longer protection. To receive longer protection use a higher SPF to begin, or take a break from the sun and return with fresh SPF 15 applied.

The lips are skin too! Your lips can burn just as easily as the rest of your skin, and are just as much at risk for developing skin cancer. Always wear a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or higher, and reapply often.

The higher the altitude, the faster the burn. Hikers and climbers should take extra precaution against the sun. Higher altitudes lead to a faster sunburn because you’re closer to the sun’s rays and often less protected from cloud cover. When outdoors in high altitude, remember to select a high SPF (30 or higher) sunscreen and to reapply at least once per hour.

Self-tanners don’t protect you. Unlike the sun’s effects, sunless tanning lotions don’t damage the DNA in skin cells. Instead, self-tanners contain a colorless sugar called dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that stains the dead cells on the surface of the skin. But don’t think you’re adequately protected from UV just because your skin turns darker. DHA offers protection equivalent to an SPF of only 2 to 4, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation.

What to Look For in a Sunscreen or Sunblock

Again, look for both UVA and UVB protection. Check the label for ingredients such as micronized titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which help prevent melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer), hyperpigmentation (dark spots), and wrinkling and aging of the skin. Sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB will be labeled “broad spectrum.”

While no products provide 100 percent UV protection, using a higher SPF does provide more protection, as well as longer protection. Above SPF 30 the percentage of coverage increases only slightly:

  • SPF 15 = 92 percent protection
  • SPF 30 = 97 percent protection
  • SPF 40 = 97.5 percent protection

If you have acne, a waterproof sunscreen could lead to breakout. Use a non-waterproof version instead, but apply it more frequently than the label suggests to guard against dilution from sweating.

If you have an oily or moderately oily complexion, look for an oil-free sunscreen, and if you have sensitive skin, use only PABA-free sunscreens (most sunscreens and sunblocks are now PABA-free).

Protective Clothing

A standard T-shirt provides an SPF of just 4. Thankfully, an increasing amount of athletic apparel is being made with added sun protection. For example, Girls4Sport’s style-conscious rash guards, include an SPF of 65 and block 98 percent of UVA and UVB rays. For more information, visit

Heidi Kelchner is managing editor for Her Sports magazine.




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