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How to Choose Sunscreen

When the sun comes out on a Saturday morning and the weather report calls for clear skies the rest of the day, you know you're in a good position to get outside and start in on your favorite outdoor activity. But remember that the very warmth and light the sun brings can also leave you with a nasty burn.

Sunscreen

And don't think you're safe from the sun's rays in winter, either. Not only does the strength of the sun stay the same in many parts of the country through the winter, the reflection off the snow can be just as powerful as the sun itself, burning you even more quickly and severely.

New FDA Testing and Labeling Standards

The FDA has created new testing and labeling regulations for over-the-counter sunscreen products. These products will be submitted to the FDA for independent testing to determine their SPF ratings.

All sunscreen products will be required to provide protection against both UVB (a primary cause of skin cancer) and UVA rays, and will be labeled “broad spectrum." Sunscreen products that are not broad spectrum or with values under SPF 15 will be labeled with a warning that reads, “Skin Cancer/Skin Aging Alert: Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.”

Also, sunscreen products can no longer claim to be waterproof. Instead, the front label can say only how long the product will remain water resistant while swimming or perspiring. The two times permitted on the labels are 40 or 80 minutes.

In 2013, you may even see a mix of old and new labeling until retailers sell out their inventory of older products.

What Is a Sunburn?

When you spend time in the sun, you expose yourself to ultraviolet, or UV, light rays, which have the ability to strike skin cells dead. Because it’s UV rays, not heat, that cause skin damage, it’s possible to still get sunburned even when it's overcast.

Once skin cell death occurs, your body's immune system reacts by sending more blood to the affected, or "sunburned," area, making it look red. To alert you of a problem, your body's nerve endings send pain signals to your brain. The result is then a red, painful blotch of skin.

Sunburn Risk Factors

We all know that people with fairer skin tend to burn more easily. This is because fair-skinned people don’t produce as much melanin—a chemical that pigments the skin and offers some protection against sunburn (but not against skin cell damage!)—as darker-skinned people. There are six different skin types based on the amount of melanin produced, and each type has a different reaction to sun exposure:

Type 1 (pale)—always burns, never tans
Type 2 (white)—burns easily, minimal tanning
Type 3 (white)—tans easily, minimal burning
Type 4 (light brown/olive)—tans easily, minimal burning
Type 5 (brown)—rarely burns, tans easily and darkly
Type 6 (dark brown/black)—deeply pigmented, always tans, never burns

In addition to skin type, living or traveling in sunnier climates and being at higher altitudes increases your chance of getting sunburned.

How Sunscreen Works

Sunscreen works by combining ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which have properties that reflect UV rays away from the skin. Other organic ingredients such as octyl methoxycinnamate help dissipate radiation as heat. So keep some sunscreen handy in your first aid kit or hiking backpack for when the sun starts really beating down

Explaining Sun Protection Factor (SPF)

Whether it's an old package or a newly rated product, you'll see a sun protection factor, or SPF, rating on every bottle. Basically, the higher the SPF number, the better protection you'll get.

An interesting way to look at SPF is to determine how long you can stay in the sun with any given rating before you start to burn. The equation goes like this: duration of time before burning multiplied by the SPF rating equals how long you can spend in the sun before burning. Let's say you start to burn after 10 minutes of hanging out in the sun. Sunscreen with a rating of SPF 15 would give you 150 minutes of sun time before your skin's in trouble.

The best sunscreens for active outdoor sports range between SPF 20 and 30. These levels have slightly fewer UV-reflecting ingredients, allowing your skin to breathe and sweat more easily. If you know you'll be at high elevations and don't suspect you'll be too active, you may want to opt for SPF 50. While this may weigh heavily on your skin and affect its breathability, it’s certainly the best protection against sunburn. SPF 45 or 50 is also ideal for protecting children and toddlers, who have less-durable skin. This goes for thinner skin on you, too, such as the nose and ears.

Keep in mind, though, that when SPF ratings are determined, laboratory testing often uses much more sunscreen than we typically lather on. True numbers suggests outdoor enthusiasts use only about half the amount scientists use to determine SPF ratings. So really, you'll need to throw on twice as much as usual for base protection.

Which Tube Is Best?

You may run into all kinds of sunscreen packaging, including roll-on sticks, sprays, and creams. While none of these is more effective than any other, the important thing is to apply enough and follow the directions on the package. As Dr. Lawrence Gibson, a Mayo Clinic dermatologist, puts it, "The best sunscreen is one that you'll use generously."

The last thing to keep in mind is that some sunscreens can cause irritation if you use them on your face. If you're prone to breaking out, stay away from ones that have additives, such as scents, dyes, or preservatives. As a rule of thumb, stick with sunscreens that have the fewest ingredients possible.

Whenever you expect to be spending any extended time outdoors, take along the right sunscreen in addition to all other necessary outdoor gear to keep your skin safe from the sun's harmful rays.


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