I have a confession to make.
I only began applying sunscreen daily within the last couple of years.
I have olive skin, which means I tan without even trying. Burning has never been an issue for me. And, for years, I never gave sun damage a second thought.
Until I turned 30 and looked in the mirror.
Ah. There it was. All my hours of sun worship taking up residence on my face in the form of hyper-pigmentation and even a few wrinkles.
All that to say, I’ve been on a bit of a mission to preserve what’s left of my skin. Which brings me to the point of this post: not all sunscreens are created equal.
There was a time, not too long ago, when buying a “good” sunscreen meant choosing one with a high SPF number. Well, in recent years they’ve discovered that while UVB (burning) rays are responsible for sunburn and most non-melanoma skin cancers, it’s the UVA (aging) rays that penetrate the skin more deeply causing the majority of wrinkles and photoaging, as well as the more aggressive skin cancers. (As a side note, tanning beds primarily use UVA rays, one of the many reasons to avoid them.)
SPF only measures UVB protection. So, if you’re buying sunscreen based solely on the SPF number, you may not be as protected as you think you are.
What’s needed is a broad-spectrum sunscreen. One that blocks out both UVA and UVB rays. However, even if the bottle says “broad-spectrum” you’ve got to check the ingredients. Federal regulations allow sunscreens and daily moisturizers with sun protection to be labeled “broad-spectrum” even if they provide only partial UVA protection. They are working on a UVA rating system that will eventually be implemented. Until then, here’s what to look for:
1. an SPF of 15 or higher for UVB protection
2. contains at least one of the following: Mexoryl, Helioplex, avobenzone (aka Parsol 1789), titanium dioxide or zinc oxide
While all the above ingredients block out some degree of UVA rays, the only one that blocks UVB, plus all (meaning long and short wave) UVA rays is zinc oxide. It’s the closest thing to a “total sunblock” available.
The good news is that zinc oxide has come a long way in the last few years. The latest formulations use a micro-fine form, which means you won’t end up looking like Casper at the pool. What’s more, zinc oxide is non-irritating (there are no known adverse reactions) and it’s safe for sensitive skin (it’s the only thing I use on my kids).
Another added benefit is, because it is a physical block (like titanium dioxide), you don’t have to wait 20 minutes before going out in the sun. Once it’s on, you’re protected.
Invest in a good sunscreen this summer. Apply it liberally and often. And be sure to protect your neck and chest, as well as the back of your hands as part of your daily routine — whether you’re at the pool or not.
When it comes to sunscreen, the old adage holds true: an ounce of prevention truly is worth a pound of cure.
Originally posted in May 2008 at Life with Three.