The Dummies’ Guide to Sunscreen


Everybody loves spending a warm day with friends and loved ones outside at the beach, but too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation can be detrimental to your health.

In fact, overexposure to UV radiation is the leading cause of skin cancer. reports that over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all the other cancers combined and that one in five Americans will develop some type of skin cancer over the course of their lifetime. With stats like this, it seems inevitable, but how can you best defend against the sun and its harsh UV rays? The best protection against UV radiation is a comfortable amount of protective sunscreen.

This article is going to guide you over some basic elements to consider when purchasing sunscreen that anyone would be able to understand.

UVA vs UVB Rays

There are two types of ultraviolet rays that concern our skin: UVA and UVB. UVB rays are mostly responsible for the reddening and/or “burning” of the top layers of our skin. UVA rays penetrate to deeper layers of our skin and are responsible for the more long-term effects of sun damage – aged skin, wrinkles and cellular trauma. These rays are believed to be the premiere factor in the deadliest variety of skin cancer, Melanoma.

To remember it easily, you can think of it this way:

UVA à Skin-aging, tanning effects.

UVB à Burning, sun damage.

(There is also a third variety of UV light – UVC. It is the most harmful and deadly type, however, the Earth’s ozone layer protects us from them.)

With that said, when shopping for sunscreen, it is best to find sunscreen that protects from both forms of ultraviolet radiation.

The amount of sunscreen the user applies and how often it is reapplied will dramatically affect the performance of the product.

Understanding SPF

Many people think that the higher the SPF on the bottle, the longer you are able to stay out in the sun with protection. Unfortunately, SPF numbers do not rise correlatively – for example, because you can stay outside in the sun for 5 hours with 50 SPF sunscreen, doesn’t mean you’d be able to stay out for 10 hours with an SPF 100 protection.

The Environmental Working Group reports that 50 SPF is considered the benchmark for UVB protection, and that anything above that is typically only a marginal benefit at best. For example, 50 SPF protects from about 98 percent of UVB rays, while 100 SPF protects about 99 percent. The key to maximizing protection is in appropriate reapplication of the protectant.

What to Look for on the Labeling

The labeling on sunscreen will tell you everything you need to know to maximize its effectiveness. Look for the term “Broad Spectrum” protection when making a purchase, as these varieties of sunscreen will be balanced better between the two types of radiation. Under new FDA regulation, the amount of UVA protection will be directly correlated with the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) claim on the labelling.

“Very Water Resistant” is another term you should look to find on your next bottle of sunscreen. The term is regulated by the FDA and represents the products ability to remain effective after 80 minutes of water exposure, while “Water Resistant” refers to its ability to be effective only around the 40-minute mark.
“Waterproof” and “All Day Protection” are terms that are no longer allowed – so do not buy any products claiming as such.

Best-Use Practices

Apply early and often is a good mantra to keep in mind when preparing for a day in the sun. Application of sunscreen about 30 minutes before exposure to sunlight is recommended with reapplication after any contact with water. Everyone is different though, and some of us have more sensitive skin than others. If you or someone in your family (especially the little ones!) are prone to sunscreen irritation or has little tolerance for UV rays, look into high-SPF sunscreen specifically for sensitive skin.

Don’t tarnish what should be a great day in the sun with loved ones, use sunscreen appropriately!