Posted on June 21, 2017
If you’re super pale and burn easily, you should use the highest SPF you can find when you go out in the sun, right? Not necessarily. The reality of what various SPFs offer in the way of protection—and which ones you should be using—is much more complicated than that.
Ah, summer. Time for family barbeques, trips to the pool, outdoor concerts, days spent on the beach, and…sunburn. The American Association for Cancer Research (AACR) reports that it only takes five blistering sunburns in our youth to increase our risk of melanoma by 80 percent. That’s a scary thought! Sunburns happen—we forget to reapply sunscreen or nod off in our beach chair and before we know it, we’re the color of a lobster.
The Danger: UVB & UVA Rays
As the chief cause of reddening and sunburn, UVB rays most often damage the epidermis, or outer layer, where the most common forms of skin cancer occur—those linked to years and years of sun-accumulation. Another type of skin cancer, melanoma, is thought to be caused by brief, intense exposures, such as blistering sunburns.
UVA rays are long enough to reach the skin’s dermal layer, damaging collagen and elastic tissue. This layer is also where the cells that stimulate skin darkening are found; that’s why UVA rays are considered the dominant tanning rays. (These rays are also used in tanning beds.) So many of us still think a tan looks healthy, but it’s actually a sign of damage to your DNA. A tan is really your skin darkening in an attempt to prevent further injury, which can lead to cell mutations that trigger skin cancer.
The SPF Question
Just a few years ago, plain old SPF 30 sunscreen seemed like all we needed. Now SPF 50, 70, even 100 can be found everywhere. So, what does SPF stand for? SPF stands for sun protection factor and, according to dermatologist Dr. Ellen Marmur, the number on the label tells you how many times longer you can be in UVB light before you start to burn. For example, SPF 15 means you can be in the sun 15 times longer with sunscreen on than you could without it before getting a sunburn.
Seems simple, right? You’ll just need to get something with an SPF of 100 and you can stay out in the sun for hours, right? Right? No.
To get the most protection, Consumer Reports magazine says you want a broad-spectrum sunscreen—ones that protect against UVB and UVA rays. But it’s important to note that no sunscreen blocks 100 percent of UVB rays, and ultra-high SPFs don’t really give you much more protection than SPFs of 30 or 50.
Are All Sunscreens the Same?
It’s the essential question of summer: Is my sunscreen really doing its job? Consumer Reports took this issue and decided to analyze 65 sunscreen lotions, sprays, and sticks with an SPF of at least 30. The magazine asked volunteers to apply the sunscreen to their backs, sit in water for the amount of time each product claimed it was water-resistant, and then exposed each to UV light. The volunteers were checked for redness the next day.
Shockingly, the report found 43 percent of sunscreens failed to meet the SPF claim on their labels. Some missed the mark dramatically. These findings are consistent with previous studies performed by the magazine, commented Patricia Calvo, deputy content editor for health and food. Over the past four years, since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated requirements for how sunscreen manufacturers label and test their products, 48 percent of sunscreens have fallen short of their SPF claim.
Elizabeth Narins, a fitness and health editor for Cosmopolitan magazine, summed up the report’s findings this way:
“Water resistant” is basically meaningless (nearly half the water-resistant products researchers tested failed after being dunked); those chemical-free, mineral sunscreens made only with titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or both are far less effective than chemical formulas; you’ve got a 57 percent chance of picking up a sunscreen that provides less protection than its label claims; and one out of three sunscreens function below 30 SPF, the bare minimum to prevent burns and long-term skin damage according to the American Academy of Dermatology.
Seems pretty bleak, right?
The Best Suncreens of the Bunch
It’s not all bad news. Consumer Reports did find several products that did the job they promised and even released their top five picks:
Ranked first on the list is La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60, which is $36.00 for 5 ounces. Unfortunately, at this price, this sunscreen isn’t practical for the typical family. Thank goodness for number two on the list, Pure Sun Defense SPF 50 Disney Frozen. This sunscreen scored a 98 on the magazine’s 100-point scale and only costs $5.98 for 8 ounces. You can find this wonder at Walmart—with Anna and Elsa on the label, it should be easy for you or your kids to find.
While spray sunscreens aren’t normally the most effective (mostly due to user error!) Trader Joe’s Spray SPF 50+ topped its category, scoring as high as the number one lotion. At $6.00 for 6 ounces, the price is definitely doable.
The magazine only tested four brands of solid sunscreens, and none ranked as high as any of the top body lotions and spray. If you’re adamant about using stick sunscreen, Coppertone Kids Stick SPF 55 is the best of the bunch at $4.99 for 0.6 ounces. Only eight brands of facial sunscreens were tested and, while not as effective as most lotions and sprays, Avon Sun+ Sunscreen Face Lotion SPF 40 was at the top of its class. It’s $9.00 for 3 ounces and is best for those worried that other lotions will lead to acne.
If you can’t find these top products, just be sure to use a chemical sunscreen with SPF 40 or higher: Doing so will increase “the likelihood that it will deliver at least the minimum protection recommended by dermatologists,” said Consumer Reports deputy editor of health and food Trisha Calvo, in a press release.
When it comes to sunscreen, the most important factor is your own diligence. “We forget to reapply every one to two hours. We don’t apply enough sunscreen. We forget to protect our backs or shoulders or legs or feet,” says Dr. Marmur. “My advice? Be generous with sunscreen. Buy extra, use more, and apply often.”
Soothe the Burn
“The best way to treat a sunburn is to prevent it from happening in the first place,” says Joshua Zeichner, M.D., director of cosmetic and clinical research at Mount Sinai Hospital, NYC. “But in real life, accidents happen.”
When a sunburn develops, and your skin feels like it’s on fire, a few simple steps can lead to relief while your skin heals.
- Take a cool shower or bath: Cool or lukewarm water will help take some of the heat out of your burned skin. Adding colloidal oatmeal to your bath will coat and soothe the skin, improve hydration, and calm inflammation.
- Slather on soothing lotion: As soon as you get out of the shower or bath—while skin is still damp—liberally apply moisturizer. Use one that contains hyaluronic acid, an ingredient that helps bind water to the skin. Aloe vera in a moisturizer can also be very soothing.
- Take an anti-inflammatory: A sunburn inflames the skin. Aspirin or ibuprofen can help reduce swelling and alleviate discomfort.
- Drink up: Your body is working hard to cool off, so staying hydrated can help. Stick with water and drink more than you normally do.
- Try a few refrigerator remedies: Applying a thin layer of cold plain yogurt over your skin can act as a mild anti-inflammatory. You can also make a cold compress to apply to burned skin—mix skim milk with an egg white and ice. Soak a washcloth in the mixture and apply it to skin.
- Don’t pick at your skin: If your skin does blister, resist the urge to pop or peel them. The skin of the blister actually protects the damaged skin from bacteria. If blisters do pop, apply an over-the-counter antibiotic ointment to the affected skin.
- Use extra caution: If you already have a sunburn, exposing the skin to more UV rays is very unwise. Stay in the shade or indoors as much as possible until you skin has healed. If you must be in the sun, wear clothing that covers the burned areas.
When to See a Doctor
You should seek medical help if you or a family member has severe blistering over a large portion of the body, has a fever and chills, or is woozy, confused, or experiencing nausea. Don’t pop the blisters or scratch the skin—this can lead to infection. Signs of infection include red streaks or oozing pus.
Your skin will eventually heal, but you should learn from the experience. Remember how bad this sunburn feels and commit to protecting yourself from the sun every day, all year long.
If you find your sunburn is serious, don’t wait for an appointment with your doctor or rush to the ER—make the quick drive to New Bern’s only family practice urgent care facility. Open every day of the week, it’s the smart option for you and your family. CCHC Urgent Care is located at 1040 Medical Park Ave., New Bern, NC. Call (252) 638-CARE (2273) for more information.
(Sources: American Association for Cancer Research; Dr. Natalie Azar, NBC News; Skin Cancer Foundation; Consumer Reports Magazine; Country Living Magazine; Bustle; Cosmopolitan Magazine; Huffpost; CNN; and CBS News.)