What is SPF?
SPF stands for sun protection factor. It’s intended as a guideline to help understand sun protective options, but is often misunderstood. The number shown as the SPF on a product indicates the number of times you can expect to stay out in the sun without being burned compared to having no protection at all. For example, if you would normally start burning in 10 minutes without any protection, an SPF of 15 means you can stay out 15 times that 10 minutes, or approximately 150 minutes. Keep in mind that this is with adequate application, and with reapplication after water, sweating, and other factors.
Sunblock vs. sunscreen
Choose a sunblock over a sunscreen. A sunblock provides a physical barrier to protect you from the sun, and is made from zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. A sunscreen is a combination of chemicals that are absorbed by your skin and create a reaction to provide temporary sun protection. Examples are oxybenzone and avobenzone. Unfortunately, research has shown that these chemicals combined with sunlight may contribute to increased likelihood of some types of skin cancer – the very thing they are intended to prevent! Additionally, some of the chemical sunscreens act as endocrine disruptors, interfering with the normal hormonal processes of the body. These chemicals are best avoided.
Some sunblock manufacturers use a type of zinc that has particles so small, they are absorbed through your skin, rather than sitting on the surface. This may be dangerous and cause health problems that aren’t yet fully understood. The best option is to choose a non-nano form if you’re using a zinc based product. There are many available on the market to choose from, and the drug ingredient label should specify “non-nano zinc oxide.” Currently available non-nano physical blockers include products such as creams and sunblock sticks.
More isn’t necessarily better!
In the past, some sun protection products advertised an SPF of 60, 75, 90 or even more. While this may sound promising, these products were problematic for many reasons. A very high SPF can be misleading to consumers, providing the expectation that reapplication is not needed, and that they are foolproof for preventing sunburn. Additionally, the higher SPF products are all chemical based sunscreens rather than physical blockers. In general you should avoid SPF over about 30, choosing to stick with a physical blocker instead.
Beyond Sun Creams – Truly Safer Sun Protection
Think beyond sunblock for protection. Hats, sunglasses, and UV protective clothing are key. Infant and child sun suits are a convenient way to cover up much of your child’s body with a high SPF. A rash guard type swim top can help with children of any age, including teens and adults. A “sun hoodie” is a lightweight long sleeved top that can be used for sun protection for any type of outdoor activity. All of these can really reduce the area needing a sun protective product.
Unfortunately, just ONE blistering sunburn in childhood doubles the risk of melanoma. Multiple blistering sunburns further increase that risk. Outdoor play for kids is fun and so important, and a little prevention goes a long way. Enjoy your summer safely!
Want to read more about this? The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a detailed article here.