Sun-Believable: The ABCs of Sun Protection

A = Awareness; B = Be cautious; C = Consistency

While more and more people are aware that unprotected sun exposure is dangerous because of an increased risk of skin cancer, exactly what sunscreen to use and how to apply it is still a mystery to many. Everyone needs to know the following facts to be safe in the sun:

You’ve heard of SPF-but what do those numbers really mean? The SPF number on a sunscreen label tells you only how long you can stay in the sun without burning. It does not tell you the quality or amount of sun protection you are getting. For example, an SPF 50 sunscreen does not protect you “better” than an SPF 25. An SPF of 25 means that you can stay in the sun approximately nine hours without burning while the SPF 50 allows for about 18 hours in the sun without burning. But how many places in the world have 18 hours of sunlight every day?

So the extra protection is actually meaningless. In terms of how much sunlight (Ultra Violet-UV rays) gets through to the skin, both SPF 25 and SPF 50 protect nearly identically. An SPF 50 is not better than an SPF 25. If anything, it misleads lots of people into thinking they are getting stronger protection when all they are getting is unnecessary longer protection. According to the Academy of Dermatology, the sunscreen you use must be at least an SPF 15.

Is SPF the only consideration for sun protection? SPF numbers are important, but only part of the picture when it comes to sun protection. There is a great deal of research proving UVA rays are the sun’s most destructive force. You don’t feel them because they don’t cause sunburn, but they are believed to be the primary cause of skin cancer and wrinkles. Unfortunately, the SPF rating is only a measurement regarding the sun’s UVB rays, it doesn’t tell you anything about whether or not you will be protected from the sun’s damaging UVA rays. There is no rating for UVA protection, so it is all about the ingredients. Sunscreens must contain one of the following UVA-protecting ingredients approved for use in the U.S.: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and avobenzone (often listed as butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane). It is critical to understand the UVA-protecting ingredient must be listed as an “active ingredient.”

Are expensive sunscreens more effective? Sunscreens are regulated as over-the-counter drugs by the FDA, so price is not an indicator in any way, shape, or form about efficacy. Research has shown that in order for sunscreens to be truly effective they must be applied liberally every day and reapplied as needed. Because of this fact, expensive sunscreens may actually be a problem for skin because how liberally is someone going to apply a $35, $50, $75, or higher per-ounce sunscreen?

And remember, sunscreen needs to be applied 365 days a year-most people aren’t aware that sun damage begins the moment their skin sees daylight, spring, summer, winter or fall. Over time, cumulative exposure generates a lot of skin damage!

Even after you’ve taken all these precautions of every day of the year liberally applying a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or greater that has UVA-protecting ingredients, you still need to be aware that basking in the sun is a problem for the health of skin. Sunscreen is not complete protection, it does have limitations, so seeking out shade, wearing sunglasses, or wearing a hat with a visor or wide brim is better than any anti-wrinkle cream you could ever buy.

Copyright 2005, 2006 by Paula Begoun and Bryan Barron. The information provided does not substitute for a face-to-face consultation with a dermatologist or with your physician, and should not be construed as individual medical advice. Additional information can be found at


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