Many Mainers endure the harsh winters because the summers are extraordinary here. The icy winter is a mere memory and “mud season” has subsided. For these precious few months we strip ourselves of our wooly layers and muck boots. Boating, hiking, camping, and swimming are often the order of the day. All this outdoor fun is wonderfully rejuvenating for body, mind, and spirit. However, all that time in the sun can have a detrimental effect on unprotected skin including: burning, premature aging, and development of pre-cancerous and cancerous skin lesions.
Sunscreens and sunblocks are a known, effective means of reducing exposure to UV rays. Visit any drug store and there is veritable mountain of choices using terms such as “SPF,” “sunblock,” “sunscreen,” “broad spectrum,” “water-resistant,” etc. So, what’s it all mean? Here’s the 4-1-1 on sun protection:
SPF refers to the Sun Protective Factor of sunscreen, essentially its ability to block UVB rays, not UVA. However, the SPF numbers can be confusing. A lotion with an SPF of 30 does not have twice the amount of protective power than SPF 15. In actuality, a lotion with an SPF 15 blocks approximately 93% of UVB rays. SPF 30 blocks approximately 97%, while SPF 50 blocks approximately 98%.
Sunscreens vs. Sunblock
While sunscreen and sunblock both protect against sun damage, these terms are not interchangeable.
Sunscreen provides a colorless layer on the skin that absorbs most (but not all!) of the harmful UV rays. The lotion needs time to seep into your skin to form that protective layer so it must be applied 20 minutes before exposure to the sun. After about 1 ½ to 2 hours of being outdoors, you’ll want to reapply.
In June 2012, the FDA established a new standard for new labeling sunscreen to include “Broad Spectrum.” “Broad Spectrum” means its ability to absorb both UVB and UVA rays. Combine that with an SPF 15 (or higher) and you will be protected from sunburn, and, when used as directed, will reduce your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Sunscreen not labeled “Broad Spectrum” or that has an SPF value lower than15 will only prevent sunburn.
Sunblock, often made from titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, does what its name describes. It is physical barrier that blocks UV rays from being absorbed by the skin. While sunblock offers better protection against the sun, it leaves an opaque layer of lotion on the skin – not a look most beach-goers are going for but a great option for very young children or those with significant risk for skin cancer.
The FDA requires sunscreen manufacturers to let consumers know how long they will have the SPF protection printed on the label while swimming or perspiring. Two times are permitted based on current testing methods: 40 minutes or 80 minutes. This is what is considered “water resistant.”
The best protection is to use these products in conjunction with the proper clothing: wide brimmed hats, long sleeved shirts, and pants. Keeping out of the sun altogether is another option. Not ideal given our short Maine summers, but better that the consequences: sun damage or, worse, skin cancer.