Each year, as the summer rolls around, the search begins for the sunscreen that will accompany the stretch of sun washed, adventure filled days. All summer long, before venturing out into the beautiful drenching of warm sun, we lather ourselves up with generous amounts of sunscreen.
We do this habitually, without thinking – ‘you can’t be out in this sun without sunscreen!’ – and it clears and calms our minds to enjoy our days with the sun pounding down on us. However, it seems that as the summer weans to an end, so does our motivation to pile on the sunscreen. Reflecting on this seasonal ritual makes me wonder about its necessity.
Do real reasons for robotically lathering up every hour all summer exist? Basically, does sunscreen actually work?
Why do we use sunscreen?
To determine whether there exists an actual need to pre plan and budget for your family’s massive supply of summer sunscreen, we must first identify some of the reasons we believe the lotion (not the spray) is essential. The most commonly known reason for wearing sunscreen is to shield us from UV rays, which are declared harmful and something we want to limit exposure to, for some reason. Why, you ask? Well, the simplest answer is that UV rays damage the DNA of skin cells. If you remember anything from high school biology, or just in case you don’t, damaging DNA can affect the function of things in the body, in potentially dangerous ways.
There are 3 types of UV rays, UVA, UVB, and UVC; UVA and UVB rays are the culprits of potential DNA damage to humans. UVA rays age skin cells leading to long-term skin damage, including wrinkles (stop what you’re doing and apply sunscreen, quickly!), and may also contribute to some skin cancers. UVB rays are stronger than UVA rays, are the main cause of sunburns, and are believed to be the rays which cause most skin cancers. Learning this kind of information inspires heavy application of sunscreen.
Knowledge of the effects of UV rays has developed into less complex explanations of why we wear sunscreen. For instance, we wear sunscreen to lower our risk of skin cancer. Or, we wear sunscreen to avoid premature aging and to keep our skin healthy. When presented like that, the reasons for wearing sunscreen seem sound and purposeful.
Other obvious reasons why we squeeze 2 bottles of sunscreen per week onto our bodies are to avoid sunburn and its painful aftermath and to avoid tanning, if we’re not fans of a summer kissed complexion.
We are constantly bombarded with reminders of these reasons, accompanied by ads for the ‘best’ brand of sunscreen. Behavioral conditioning has taught us to listen to facts and to implement the solution – sunscreen in this case. Critical thinking is always important, however, and we must be sure to educate ourselves about the accuracy and/or necessity of our beliefs. Sunscreen makes us feel protected under the boiling sun, but does it work in the way we believe it does?
The evidence that sunscreen works
The existing evidence is complicated and must be analyzed carefully, to optimize understanding, and therefore more effective use of sunscreen for the purposes for which it is intended. On their website, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains in plain and clear language the fact that, generally, American-used sunscreens, and their bafflingly ranged SPF contents, are designed to protect against UVB rays, and therefore, sunburns.
While this sounds like a good strategy, it is lacking. As we learned before, UVA rays, while not as strong as their UVB counterparts, do contribute to causing skin cancer. Don’t forget that UVA rays are the main culprits of wrinkles! This means that many of the sunscreens we depend upon, telling ourselves our skin is protected, are not doing the full job. The EWG asserts that sunscreens must also contain sufficient ingredients protecting against UVA rays, to be considered effective.
This information highlights the need to reform the question to address whether sunscreen is protecting us in the way that it advertises, and we, therefore, believe. The EWG considered the evaluations done by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to learn if American sunscreens were proving true to their protection claims.
The findings showed that the advertising labels of many sunscreen are likely not accurate, and often profess higher levels of protection than are provided. One common factor that is often misinterpreted, is the meaning of SPF, as asserted by Mayo Clinic.
It is widely misunderstood that a higher level of SPF in a sunscreen signifies a higher level of effectiveness. This is misleading, however, because SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, provides protection from UVB rays, meaning that the higher level of SPF, the higher the level of sunburn protection. Again, SPF does not, however, protect against UVA rays, so higher SPF does not necessarily indicate overall higher effectiveness. The FDA has imposed a cap on SPF levels to 50+ to lessen the misleading effects of the labeling.
The information that higher levels of SPF does not ensure more effective protection is not a reason to develop a skeptical attitude towards sunscreen, however. The evidence shows that there are, in fact, sunscreens which protect in the way we imagine, against both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens which protect against both types of rays are labeled as full or broad-spectrum. This is the answer we’ve been searching for! The ballots are in, and it appears that sunscreen, does, in fact, work. The right sunscreen, that is.
Holistic sun protection
As we have learned, it is essential, non-negotiable, to use a sunscreen that is full or broad-spectrum. An effective sunscreen should have at least SPF 15 for everyday indirect use and SPF 30 for more intense, direct exposure. Beyond the type of sunscreen to be used, are other aspects of sun protection that cannot be ignored if one wishes to successfully use holistic sun protection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend, in combination with the use of sunscreen, spending time in shady areas while out in the sun. The CDC also suggests wearing clothing that provides UV protection, hats, and sunglasses. They also assert that we should remember to adhere to expiration dates, and to be mindful that sunscreen wears off and must be reapplied, either after swimming or drying off with a towel, or if you have been out in the sun for more than 2 hours.
The debate about whether sunscreen works or not must be put to rest, and that focus transferred to education about which sunscreens DO work and what steps need to be taken to ensure maximum protection from the potential dangers of UV rays from the sun. Following the simple yet clear guidelines provided by the CDC allows for peace of mind and safe fun in the sun!