Breakdown: Why you need to wear sunscreen, regardless of the time of year

Published: Sep. 5, 2021 at 9:00 AM CDT|Updated: Sep. 5, 2021 at 9:01 AM CDT
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Rain or shine, winter or summer, any time spent outdoors leaves your delicate skin vulnerable to sun damage.

No matter where you are -- the beach, the mountains, or just walking down the street -- if you are outside, your skin is being pummeled by the sun’s invisible, damaging, and harmful rays. And yes, this happens even on a cloudy day.

Fortunately, this is where sunscreen comes in, as it helps protect from and minimizes these damaging effects by playing an important role in blocking ultraviolet (UV) radiation from being absorbed by the skin.

Sunscreen products essentially work in two ways depending on the composition of the product: the light will either be reflected or absorbed:

  • Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays. They contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. These formulations tend to be easier to rub into the skin without leaving a white residue.
  • Physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting on the surface of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays. They contain the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Opt for this sunscreen if you have sensitive skin. However, they are more likely to leave a white “residue” on the skin unless you use a sunscreen that says “tinted” on the label.
This infographic gives important information on how to protect against skin cancer, including...
This infographic gives important information on how to protect against skin cancer, including detailing the difference between physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen.(AAD)

No sunscreen blocks UV radiation 100%. But they allow you to be outdoors for a longer time before your skin starts to redden. Using sunscreen doesn’t mean you can stay out in the sun for an unlimited amount of time. Damage to your skin cells is still occurring.

What does SPF mean?

The term SPF that appears on sunscreen labels stands for Sun Protection Factor, but it is really a sunburn protection factor. The SPF is a measure of how well the sunscreen protects against UVB rays. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns. But like UVA rays, they can also contribute to skin cancer. The SPF on a label doesn’t say anything about a sunscreen’s ability to block UVA rays.

Higher SPF numbers mean greater protection from UVB rays. But no sunscreen can block all UVB rays. For example, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 blocks about 97% of UVB rays. A sunscreen with an SPF of 50 blocks about 98% of UVB rays.

What is the difference between the rays UVA and UVB rays?

Sunlight consists of two types of harmful rays that reach the earth — UVA rays and UVB rays. Overexposure to either can lead to skin cancer. In addition to causing skin cancer, here’s what each of these rays do:

  • UVA rays (or aging rays) can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots, and can pass through window glass.
  • UVB rays (or burning rays) are the primary cause of sunburn and are blocked by window glass.

What does “Broad Spectrum” mean?

A sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum” provides UV protection across both the UVB and UVA range. According to the FDA, sunscreens with broad spectrum UV protection and SPF 15 or higher can help protect against skin aging and skin cancer.

Both UVA and UVB rays can cause sunburns and can lead to longer-term health effects such as skin cancers, premature skin aging and eye damage.

Because sunburn is primarily a UVB effect, it is possible for a sunscreen product to deliver high SPF while allowing a significant percentage of the incident UVA photons to reach the skin. To deliver true broad spectrum protection, products must also block a significant fraction of the UVA photons. In the U.S. market, this requires that the products contain significant levels of zinc oxide, avobenzone or titanium dioxide.

If you are concerned about certain sunscreen ingredients, you can select a formula that contains different active ingredients. As long as your sunscreen is broad-spectrum, water-resistant and has an SPF 30 or higher, it can effectively protect you from the sun.

How to select a sunscreen

The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that everyone use sunscreen that offers the following:

  • Broad-spectrum protection (protects against UVA and UVB rays)
  • SPF 30 or higher
  • Water resistance or waterproof- This means the sunscreen provides protection while swimming or sweating for a certain amount of time—either 40 or 80 minutes, depending on the label.

The best type of sunscreen is the one that offers the benefits above. The type or brand you use is your choice. Sunscreen is available in lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks, and sprays. Just be aware that different sunscreens contain different ingredients. Avoid products that have ingredients that can irritate your skin.

Don’t rely on sunscreen alone

Using sunscreen when you are going out in the sun is important. But it is only one part of an overall plan to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. Other important ways to protect your skin include:

  • Seek shade when appropriate. Limit your sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when UV rays are the strongest.
  • Wear a hat with a wide brim and tightly woven clothing that covers most of your skin, as well as sunglasses.
  • Don’t use tanning beds or sunlamps.

Will using sunscreen limit the amount of vitamin D I get?

No, studies show that regular use of sunscreen is unlikely to decrease your skin’s production of vitamin D. Because the amount of vitamin D a person receives from the sun is inconsistent and increases the risk of skin cancer, the AAD recommends getting vitamin D from a healthy diet that includes foods naturally rich in vitamin D, foods and beverages fortified with vitamin D, and/or vitamin D supplements.

If you are concerned that you are not getting enough vitamin D, you should discuss your options for getting vitamin D with your doctor.

For more information on vitamin D and UV exposure, check out the AAD’s vitamin D fact sheet.

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