Two minutes in front of the sunscreen shelf at the drug store is enough to confuse anyone, let alone a survey of the cosmetic products that promise sun protection. I found an interesting, updated article in the Berkeley Wellness newsletter that challenges some of what we believe about our lotions and potions. I encourage you to read the article for yourself, but here are a few of the items that were the most surprising, or most useful, reminders:
- The SPF indicated on sunscreen is a reliable measure of sun protection. According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Sun Protection Factor (SPF) “is a measure of how much solar energy (UV radiation) is required to produce sunburn on protected skin.” As the Wellness newsletter explains, “More than 40 percent of sunscreens tested by Consumer Reports in 2016 fell short of their advertised SPF.” If you’re a subscriber, you can read the full report on the Consumer Reports website, or you can find a reprint of the Consumer Reports findings here, including their list of readily available products with reliable SPF. In a related note, the FDA calls attention to another myth: “There is a popular misconception that SPF relates to time of solar exposure. For example, many consumers believe that, if they normally get sunburn in one hour, then an SPF 15 sunscreen allows them to stay in the sun 15 hours (i.e., 15 times longer) without getting sunburn. This is not true….” SPF is related to the “amount of solar exposure,” not the length of time, and may be affected by solar intensity (including weather, latitude, time of day), skin type, amount of sunscreen applied, and reapplication frequency.
- A beach umbrella works just as well as sunscreen. The article points out that even people sitting under UV-blocking umbrellas will get significant sunburn if they don’t apply high-SPF sunscreen and wear protective clothing. That’s because so much UV radiation is reflected from sand and water.
- Don’t rely on your “base tan” for protection. Any exposure to UV rays causes the body to produce melanin, which darkens the skin. While that change may afford the tiniest bit of protection, it also indicates skin damage. The article also emphasizes that because of deep-penetrating, damaging UVA rays, “it’s risky to use tanning beds before summer.”
Before you run out to the store, you may also want to have a look at the Environmental Working Group guide to sunscreens. They rate the products, make recommendations, and also examine the chemicals that go into sunscreen and their possible health effects.
Cover up, take care, and have a great rest of the summer!