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Everything You Need To Know About Sunscreen

And why its importance shouldn’t be taken lightly

After a long, dark, and cold winter, what could instill more cheer into our lives than the sun? As the days become longer and brighter, all we want is to stop everything we’re doing to just simply exist outside and bask in the first golden days of the season.

However, while the sun has its way of bringing on the cheer, our relationship with it is a bit more complicated than we may like it to be. In honor of National Sunscreen Day this Saturday, we wanted to reiterate the importance of protecting ourselves against the sun’s harmful rays, and the role SPF plays in this.

While some may swear by wearing an appropriate amount of sunscreen every single day, others skimp on it—if not skip it completely. Whether you neglect to wear daily protection (especially on the face) or show up to the beach sans a water-resistant formula only to leave resembling a lobster, protection from the sun isn’t something to be ignored.

So, what do we really need to know about sunscreen—other than we like when our friends help slather it on us, though not until we throw down our beach blankets to claim our territory? Well, for starters, which sunscreen is right for you. Do you want physical or chemical one? Titanium dioxide or oxybenzone? And, is it really possible to actually ingest your SPF as some claim?

Don’t worry, we didn’t know all of the facts either (and some of us may be guilty of forgetting to apply sunscreen on the regular, too). We reached out the experts to fill us in on all we need to know about the subject, so we can go about our Memorial Day Weekend, summer, and the rest of our lives protected from any harmful rays and feeling safe to enjoy the bright, beautiful summer ahead.

Why is sunscreen so crucial?Sure, I think by now we all know that the sun is powerful, and isn't something to take lightly (no pun intended). On top of causing premature aging and painful burns, the dangerous rays are strongly linked to skin cancer. What’s most important for us to pay attention to, especially as young adults, are the sobering statistics, which may come as news to some of you.

Dr. Melanie Palm MD, dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon, and founding director of Art of Skin MD, tells me that nearly one in five people will develop skin cancer during their lifetime; according to her, it disproportionately affects young people. She explains that five or more sunburns during early adulthood or one exposure to a tanning bed will increase your chances of developing melanoma by 80 percent.

Now before you think, This would never happen to me, stop, because the statistics are too serious to ignore. According to Shelby Moneer, director of education for the Melanoma Research Foundation, melanoma is on the rise in a big way. Not only have melanoma rates in those under 30 soared 50 percent since 1980, it’s the leading cause of cancer death for those ages 25 to 30—despite being largely preventable. That statistic alone should be enough to have you diving headfirst into a vat of SPF.

Know your sunscreen typesFirst thing to know about sunscreens is that there are two main approved types recognized by the FDA: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreensPhysical sunscreens are mineral-based and physically reflect sunlight and UV light from the skin’s surface. According to Palm, there are only two FDA-approved physical sunscreen ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which work like a mirror to deflect harmful rays.

Chemical sunscreensChemical sunscreen ingredients work to convert sunlight and UV light into heat energy on the surface of the skin. In these sunscreens, you’ll find chemical ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, and octocrylene.

While both types can be broad spectrum and protect against both UVA and UVB radiation, physical formulas tend to do the job naturally, while chemical types will need to combine multiple ingredients. Regardless, broad spectrum is crucial to ensure proper protection.

Some newer sunscreens are now formulated with DNA repair enzymes, which, according to Dr. Ronald Moy, dermatologist, cosmetic surgeon, and vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation, have been shown to be superior to all other sunscreens in protecting against aging and cancer. “Sunscreens with DNA repair enzymes have been shown to prevent malignant transformation into invasive cell carcinoma in a more efficient manner and reduce the effects of sun damage associated with premature skin aging,” he says. He also points out that while regular sunscreens do not repair past skin damage due to sun exposure, unlike DNA repair enzymes.

There’s also been a growing popularity of “edible” sunscreen, which claim to give users SPF protection in the form of ingestible supplements. Palm is wary of this category, telling me that the FDA and dermatology societies do not recognize these as a category and that they’re strictly a marketing term or gimmick—so do not look to these to use as an effective sunscreen.

What we need every day vs. the beachEvery expert I spoke with agreed on the same basic minimum protection needed daily: A broad-spectrum sunscreen, whether chemical or physical, with at least SPF 30 or above, applied 15 minutes before sun exposure—and reapplied every two hours or so.

If you’re at the beach, a pool party, or exercising outdoors, Dr. Anthony M. Rossi, dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering, recommends opting for one that’s water-resistant or sweat-resistant. Keep in mind, though, that these still need to be reapplied regularly. “It’s important to know that the terms water-resistant and sweat-resistant indicate whether the sunscreen remains effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes when you’re swimming or sweating,” he says. “No sunscreen is truly waterproof or sweat-proof."

Whether you’re walking to the bus on your way to work or spending a day by the pool, you should be providing your skin with at least the minimum amount of protection. “While you may prefer another sunscreen for everyday use—a different texture or fragrance, for example—it should still meet the same standard protection as what’s in your beach bag,” says Moneer.

Are there any downsides to sunscreen?While sunscreen is vital, yes, there can be some downsides to it—however, by “downside,” we still mean things that are entirely manageable and nowhere near as dangerous as skin cancer.

Though recognized as safe for topical use by the FDA, chemical sunscreens can sometimes cause an allergic reaction in some users, usually because of the ingredient avobenzone. “It’s the most frequent sunscreen agent to cause this problem, though any of the chemical sunscreen active ingredients could elicit an allergy,” says Palm. “This can cause redness, itching, dryness, and a significant rash—and it will get worse with repeated application.” If this is the case, then just switch to using a physical sunscreen.

As much as sunscreen blocks harmful UVA and UVB rays, Palm mentions that it can also block the body’s ability to produce vitamin D, which is important for a healthy heart and cancer prevention. “However, dermatologists prefer that patients easily obtain adequate vitamin D through diet and supplementation than through the sun’s rays,” she says. “I typically recommend patients get a routine screening of vitamin D levels if they are doing a good job of sun protection, including use of sunscreens, to ensure they’re not insufficient or deficient.”

Keep in mind that these risks are low and non-life threatening. It is still crucial to use sunscreen—just refer back to the statistics if you need a reason why.

What’s the biggest mistake we make today in terms of SPF usage?One of the biggest mistakes we make with SPF is how much we use, or don't use. “A full body requires one ounce of sunscreen or the amount in a shot glass,” says Palm. “Most of us under-apply by at least 50 percent, and when we under-apply, we do not receive the SPF advertised on the bottle.” So be sure not to skimp the next time you’re out in the sun.

Another common mistake we make is not reapplying, especially when using a high SPF sunscreen. “Sunscreens should be reapplied every two to three hours because the active ingredients are not effective after this amount of time,” says Moy. Whether it's SPF 30 or SPF 80, set a timer on your phone to reapply, whether you went for a dip or not.

What we need to erase from our mindset is that tanning without burning is fine—actually, it’s far from it. When it comes down to it, tanning should be avoided at all costs. “Even if you don’t burn, tanning is the result of damaged skin cells,” says Moneer. Rossi agrees, warning that “there’s no such thing as a safe tan,” not even a base tan. A base tan doesn’t actually provide protection against sunburns or skin cancers—it’s a common myth that dermatologists often have to debunk.

What else can we do to protect ourselves?Of course, there’s more to preventing sun damage than using sunscreen alone. One is limiting your exposure to the sun, especially between 10am and 4pm, when, according to Moneer, the sun is the strongest. Rossi suggests incorporating sun protective clothing, hats, and glasses into the mix if you’re going outdoors—especially if you plan on lounging poolside or at the beach.

This all might sound like a lot to remember, but keep in mind that it's totally possible to have a fun time in the sun; you just need to be prepared and protect yourself.