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How Much Sunscreen Is Enough Sunscreen?


Summer is upon us. This is the hottest time of the year, and it's also the time when the sun is strongest. This means that it's very easy for people to have too much exposure to the sun's rays and suffer sunburn - which is both painful and damaging. To avoid sunburn, it's very important to use sunscreen regularly and properly. Do you know how much sunscreen to use and what kind provides the best coverage? We'll answer those questions here.

We all know that tanning ages the skin. The more UV damage you have, the older your skin will look. Ultraviolet radiation damages the DNA of your skin cells, making it vulnerable to developing cancers. That's why protecting your skin from UV rays is essential.

There are a huge number of brands of sunscreen on the market, all with different SPF (sun protection factor) ratings. Most consumers aren't sure what kind of protection they need. How strong does your sunscreen have to be to work?

First it's important to know exactly what is causing damage. Dr. Elizabeth Hale of the Skin Cancer Foundation differentiates between two types of UV rays, both of which are harmful:

  • UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in developing skin cancer. A sunscreen's SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides.
  • UVA rays cause skin damage that leads to tanning as well as skin aging and wrinkles. The shortest wavelengths of UVA rays also contribute to sunburn. It's important to look for the words "broad spectrum" on the label, which means the product has ingredients that can protect you from UVA as well as UVB rays.

The SPF number listed on each bottle of sunscreen refers to how long the sun's UV radiation would take to burn your skin (when used as directed) compared to how long it would take with no protection at all. For example SPF 30 means that it should take 30 times longer for your skin to burn than if you were not wearing sunscreen.

The problem with relying on an SPF number is that very few people use sunscreen as directed. They slap on sunscreen and go out in the sun without waiting for their skin to absorb it. They do not think they need to use clothing, hats, or sunglasses because sunscreen will protect them from UV damage. What's more, people think that using a sunscreen with a very high SPF number makes them invulnerable to skin damage. They don't think to re-apply the sunscreen later after it's been sweated or washed off, and they don't worry about how long they are out in the sun as long as they're initially applied sunscreen.

At a minimum, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or above. You should apply sunscreen a half an hour before going outside and re-apply it every two hours and after swimming or sweating.

How much sunscreen should you apply? Most people do not apply enough. To protect from sunburn, you should apply about two tablespoons of sunscreen to any exposed skin on your body and at least a nickel-sized amount to the face alone. If you use a spray sunscreen, the area you apply should have an even sheen of sunscreen covering everything.

Always remember: sunscreen isn't omnipotent. It's much better to think of sunscreen as one of many strategies necessary to protect your sun from UV damage. If you intend to be out in the sun when the sun's rays are strongest at mid-day, you should monitor how much time your skin is exposed, wear protective clothing, hats, sunglasses, and, in addition to all of those measures, sunscreen. Your skin, once damaged, is damaged forever, so be smart about protecting it and take the proper precautions when you are outside. 

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