Keeping Your Skin Protected During the Summer


We all know how important it is to protect our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays to prevent skin cancer, but do you have any idea how sunscreens work or which ones are better than others? There’s a lot more to an effective sunscreen than a pretty smell, a fancy bottle, and a brand name.

How Do Sunscreens Work?

Sunscreens utilize chemical or physical ingredients to either absorb or reflect ultraviolet radiation. Chemical ingredients, such as oxybenzone, absorb UV radiation and dissipate the energy as heat. Physical ingredients, such as zinc oxide, reflect UV rays.

There are two measurements of a sunscreen’s effectiveness. The first is SPF. SPF is a numerical rating of how well a sunscreen protects your skin from burning. Ratings range from 2 to 50+. The other measure of a sunscreen’s effectiveness is whether or not it qualifies as “broad-spectrum.” A broad-spectrum sunscreen is one that has been tested and proven effective in protecting your skin from UVA and UVB rays. Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF rating of 15 or greater can claim to reduce the risk of skin cancer and early aging. All other sunscreens can only claim to reduce the risk of burning.

Chemical vs. Physical

There are a few important distinctions to understand between sunscreens that use chemical ingredients and physical (also called mineral) ingredients. The first is that chemical sunscreen must be absorbed into the skin, and mineral sunscreen is effective on the surface. This is important because chemical sunscreens take about 20 minutes to be absorbed, and they don’t block UV radiation during that time. Mineral sunscreens, such as those whose active ingredients are titanium oxide and zinc oxide, start working immediately. There are a few other disadvantages to sunscreen that’s absorbed into the skin. These sunscreens can cause allergic reactions. Chemical sunscreens aren’t biodegradable, so they won’t degrade in the environment. And lastly, although it hasn’t been proven, but some medical professionals are concerned that absorbed chemical sunscreens may raise the risk of breast cancer.

While there is still plenty of controversy, most people in the medical community agree that mineral sunscreens are safer and more effective than chemical sunscreens. These sunscreens protect your skin from the broadest range of UVA and UVB rays. Of the two, zinc oxide and titanium oxide, zinc oxide is the most universally trusted, as evidenced by the fact that it’s the only active sunscreen ingredient approved by the FDA for infants under six months of age. Zinc oxide has also been proven to have the broadest range of UVA and UVB protection.

What Else Can You Do?

If you plan to go outside and spend the day in the sun, you can’t just apply sunscreen and go — there are other things you need to do to protect yourself. First, you need to continue to apply sunscreen every two hours at the very least — more if you’re in the water or sweating a lot. You also need to give your skin a break from time to time. Find some shade every couple hours. Ideally, you should wear a long-sleeve shirt and a sun hat to cover your skin. That said, sunscreen is an extremely important first step, and the sunscreen you choose should be based on which one protects you the best. Look for zinc oxide, and go enjoy the sunshine (in moderation, of course).