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Get Healthy Series: The Ins and Outs of Sunscreen

May 18th, 2016

By: Alison Dale, YPAL Intern

With summer quickly approaching, sunscreen and the dangers of excess sun are widely discussed and debated. We all know it is important to wear sunscreen and limit sun exposure, but this is easier said than done. Furthermore, the different types of sunscreens can be confusing – broad spectrum, SPF 100, UBA, UVB. What is truly best to use? According to The Skin Care Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of a lifetime. While this includes all types of skin cancer, some more serious than others, cancer is something we should all want to avoid. This can be accomplished by simply understanding the confusing world of sunscreen.

UVA vs. UVB Rays

The first concept to understand is the difference between UVA and UVB rays. These ultraviolet rays penetrate the atmosphere and both can contribute to long lasting skin damage. Aside from skin damage, both variations of rays can cause eye damage and suppress your immune system. UVB rays have shorter wavelengths and, therefore, do not penetrate as far into skin as UVA rays. Don’t write them off yet though, UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in the development of skin cancers.

UVA rays, on the other hand, account for 95% of the UV radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface, making it even more dangerous than UVB rays. UVA rays have longer wavelengths and penetrate deeper levels of the skin. UVA rays are the primary cause of premature skin aging, wrinkles, and the big C. UVA rays are dangerous in normal outdoor exposure, but even more dangerous when emitted through indoor tanning beds and booths. Indoor tanning devices emit 12 times the amount of UVA rays, which is important to remember when thinking about how easy it is to get skin cancer without them. Additionally, those who use these tanning devices before the age of 35 are 75% more likely to develop melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.

Since the two types of ultraviolet rays reaching Earth are so dangerous, broad-spectrum sunscreens are essential. Applying sunscreens that only provide protection from UVB rays is one of the frequent mistakes people make when selecting sunscreen.    

Sun Protection Factor

Speaking of sunscreen, that’s a whole other confusing topic. SPF stands for sun protection factor and while many people think an SPF of a lesser amount is less effective, this is simply untrue. An SPF value of 15 means it will take 15 times longer for your skin to burn compared to if it were bare. That being said, all SPF should be reapplied every two hours and dermatologists generally agree on using an SPF with a value ranging from 30-50, anything higher is unnecessary.

Different Skin Types

Of course, we all have different skin tones and this sparks another series of myths. Many people think those with deeper complexions cannot burn and cannot get skin cancer. The reality is, people with darker complexions have more melanin, which helps protect against long lasting skin damage. Melanin provides a natural SPF to our skin. An African American individual has enough melanin to provide an SPF 13.4 while a Caucasian individual only has enough melanin to provide an SPF 3.4. Don't get too excited though. Those with darker skin tones can absolutely still get sun burnt and can also still get skin cancer.

While all that information may have been a lot to take in, some just want to know what type of sunscreen they should use and other protective measures to take.  Keep these points in mind while choosing a sunscreen and enjoying the warm weather.

  1. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
  2. A sunscreen with an SPF between 30-50 is best, anything more is unnecessary.
  3. Don’t forget to protect your eyes (with sunglasses of course, sunscreen would just be painful).
  4. Any skin type is vulnerable. While you may never burn, permanent skin damage, including cancer, is possible.
  5. Of course, limit your sun exposure. When possible, avoid direct sunlight between the hours of 10 am – 4 pm.
  6. Wear sunscreen all year round – better safe than sorry!

About the Series
The YPAL Get Healthy Blog Series, sponsored by Norton Healthcare, will focus on the health and well-being of our Louisville Young Professionals. This blog series will feature various young professional bloggers in our community sharing their stories on health, wellness, nutrition, fitness and healthy lifestyles. Want to write a Get Healthy Blog Post? Email for details! 

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