Often, people falsely assume that if they’re not getting burnt, they’re not at risk for skin cancer; but that’s not quite true. As we described in a previous post in this series, using broad-spectrum sunscreen is one of several steps that can both help prevent sunburn as well as early signs of aging. But more importantly, it will reduce the risks of various forms of skin cancer, including the deadliest form of skin cancer: Melanoma. In addition to making sure your sunscreen is rated for broad-spectrum protection, two more important characteristics of sunscreen that’s effective in preventing Melanoma are that it has an SPF of at least 30 and that it does not contain vitamin A.
Why SPF Matters
You probably already know that “SPF” stands for “Sun Protection Factor.” But what exactly does the number mean, and why is it important? The Skin Cancer Foundation explains it this way: “The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen.” So if a sunscreen has an SPF of 30, that translates into a 30-fold difference in the amount of time it would take for your skin to burn than it would if you weren’t wearing any protection. Not all the rays are blocked; instead, a little more than 3% of UVB rays would still hit your skin (100 divided by 30). Thus, the term “sunscreen” is more appropriate than “sunblock.” The sun’s rays aren’t actually blocked.
If 30 SPF is good, then wouldn’t 50 SPF be even better? Theoretically, yes. But remember that studies that contribute to those numbers are conducted in labs, not in real life. The unfortunate side-effect of using sunscreen with higher SPFs is that those who use them often acquire a false sense of security, failing to use other forms of sun protection and skipping all-important re-application. Exposure to greater amounts of UV damage is often the unfortunate result.
Types of UV Radiation
Ultraviolet light contains two basic types of rays you need to know about, when it comes to damaging your skin cells: UVA and UVB. Both of these types of rays have shorter wavelengths than visible light and are, as a result, invisible to the human eye. UVB rays are the ones that can cause both sunburn and skin cancer. UVA rays also cause damage, albeit damage many people like displaying: tanning. Both UVA and UVB rays can contribute to premature aging of skin.
When you apply sunscreen, it’s important to apply the right amount at the right time. First, you want to use about 2 tablespoons. You should apply it before your skin will be exposed to direct sunlight — ideally at least 30 minutes before exposure. And then be sure to bring it along so you can reapply it every 2 hours — as well as after swimming or sweating, which are both likely to remove it or at least reduce its effectiveness.
Continue reading with Part 4.
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