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What You Need to Know About Sunscreen

More than 2 million people in the US are diagnosed with skin cancer every year. Unprotected skin exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation can also lead to several other adverse health effects, such as sunburn, premature skin aging, eye damage, and weakened immune system. The American Cancer Society states that simply staying in the shade is one of the best ways to limit exposure to UV radiation. However, if you are in the sun, it is recommended that you cover up with clothing, hat and sunglasses. Applying sunscreen is another important step in sun protection – here’s what you should know.

UV and SPF – What does it Mean?

The sun gives off two types of harmful ultraviolet rays. UVA rays penetrate into the inner layers of the skin and are known to play a major role in skin aging and wrinkling, while UVB rays are the primary cause of skin reddening and sunburn, and is a key contributor to the development of skin cancer. Sunscreen products contain several ingredients to filter out UV radiation from reaching the skin. They vary in their ability to protect against UVA and UVB – so not all sunscreens are the same.

The effectiveness of sunscreen is measured by its sun protection factor, or SPF. It tells you how long it will take for UVB rays to cause sunburn when using sunscreen compared to how long it will take to cause sunburn without the sunscreen. A simple way to look at this is – if your skin takes 20 minutes to start turning red, using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will take you 15 times longer to get sunburn than if you were to not use sunscreen – about five hours of protection.

Most sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher sufficiently protects against UVB. The Skin Cancer Foundation and CDC maintain that SPFs of 15 or higher are necessary for adequate protection, whereas the American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater.

Sunscreen Guidelines

Prior to 2012, sunscreen labels contained phrases such as multi-spectrum,sweatproof, waterproof, sunblock, which had no agreed upon definition. These terms are no longer allowed on sunscreen labels, and measures have been put in place to better inform the general public about sunscreen. In December 2012, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented new changes to sunscreen labeling.

Sunscreens maintain their original strength for at least 3 years. Some sunscreens have an expiration date – do not use sunscreens past their expiration period. If there is no expiration date, write down the date that you bought it so you will know when to throw them out.

Applying Sunscreen

Sunscreen that is broad spectrum and with an SPF 15 or higher, can help protect your skin from early skin aging and skin cancer, but only when applied correctly. Here are a few pointers:

Caroline Pak is the Medical Editor-in-Chief for Pfizer’s Get Healthy Stay Healthy website.