Bigger is barely better when it comes to SPF. The bold-print numbers on sunscreen bottles continue to climb, but the level of protection you get hardly shifts. And that SPF number isn’t the whole story, anyway. New FDA labeling measures will make the message on a bottle easier to understand. Still, sun protection depends on much more than which lotion you slather on. Your willingness to apply and reapply is the critical element.
“Sunscreen is hands-down the most important thing you can do for your skin,” says Davina Arbour, medical aesthetician at SKINnovations. “Use it every day, year round. I can’t stress that enough. Even when it’s cloudy, even when it’s raining — if the sun is up, you’re getting exposure.”
Which sunscreen you use is important. Choosing one means more than reaching for the sky-high SPF.
“SPF 30 gives you 97% protection against UVB rays, and SPF 70 gives you 98%,” Arbour says. She explains that a simple way to differentiate is that UVB rays are the ones that burn you, and UVA rays age your skin. Both contribute to damage and skin cancer, and so you need a sunscreen that protects against both. “Broad spectrum” should indicate that the product protects against UVB and UVA rays, and new FDA regulations will ensure that only products that meet their benchmarks can call themselves “broad spectrum.”
Another change is that no sunscreens can be called “sunblock” or claim to be “sweatproof” or “waterproof” — all of which overstate the effectiveness of sunscreens. They may be your best defense against skin cancer, which is the most common cancer in the United States, but sunscreens aren’t magic. You sweat or swim them off, and even if you stay dry, the active ingredients break down over time. Reapplying is the answer.
“As a rule of thumb, I suggest a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 30 — I like one with zinc oxide — and you want to reapply it every 60 minutes,” Arbour says. “If you’re outside at the pool, set a timer to beep every hour so you know it’s time to reapply.”
You probably already think “sunscreen” whenever you think “pool,” but Arbour urges women to apply sunscreen every morning, even for days spent far from the water.
“Even when you’re driving, you’re getting sun exposure,” Arbour says. “The glass may be UVB treated, but UVA rays are still coming through the windows. You can usually see that people have more brown spots and deeper wrinkles on their left sides because of damage while they’re driving.
“People just don’t take into consideration the level of sun exposure they’re getting on a day-to-day basis.”
A lot — even in Indiana, which isn’t exactly the sunshine state. Even on the grayest winter day or rainy spring afternoons. Fight the rays: Give your skin a slather of sunscreen every morning. (And another and another if you’re outside for a while.)