Worried About Skin Cancer? Find Out What Sunscreen SPF Really Means

Worried About Skin Cancer? Find Out What Sunscreen SPF Really Means

I’m fair skinned. We’re talking red hair, blue eyes, freckles, can’t even THINK about the sun without turning three shades of pink, fair skinned.

I sunburn – badly.

My husband, on the other hand, is Egyptian. Almond-brown all year round (bastard!), looking healthy and tanned and like he’s enjoying every minute of his life someplace tropical, on a beach.

He has none of my fear of the sun and its fiery power capable of turning me into a cartoon burnt-match smoldering stick figure. And what’s worse, he loves it! And I know that many of you reading this article love the sun, too, and all of its tanning glory. So be it.

For those of us who need sunscreen – and since recent studies on skin cancer show that this includes literally everybody, including my husband – it’s important to understand what those pesky SPF numbers actually mean. And it is truly a bit surprising.

Someone like me, who has a fairly intimate knowledge of sunscreen, was very surprised to find out that these SPF numbers actually do correspond to a measurement of benefit and are not just an annoying marketing ploy, like I originally thought they were.

But I was also surprised to learn exactly what that measured benefit really means for my skin and how this translates into some practical information and guidelines.

We’re a numbers-driven culture, and so to almost all of us the number 100 sounds much, much, much better (more than three times better) than 30. But does that translate literally into the protective power in your sunscreen? I wanted to know if an SPF of 100 really was three times (or any times) better at protecting my skin from sunburn and skin cancer than, say, an SPF 30 was, in the world of SPF.

I wanted to know just how much protection from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays I was getting.

UVB rays are those rays that cause sunburn. These are the rays blocked (in part) by most sunscreens. UVA rays, on the other hand, penetrate much deeper into skin, and therefore are responsible for that tanned-leather, premature aging that many older “beach turtles” have.

The really bad news is that both UVA and UVB can cause skin cancer. So it’s important to make certain that whatever product you choose, it offers protection from both types of solar radiation.

Two important things to know about these numbers:

1–the SPF number has nothing to do with a percentage of sun-blocking power, meaning SPF 100 doesn’t block out 100 percent of the harmful rays. So an SPF 100 does not block out 100 percent of the sun’s UVB/UVA any more than an SPF 30 blocks only thirty percent. It doesn’t work like that. And no sun block blocks out 100 percent of the sun’s radiation.

2-the SPF numbers are in no way a scale, meaning an SPF of 100 is nowhere near doubly effective as that of an SPF 50. As the SPF numbers go up, the benefit goes up so slightly that it’s almost difficult to measure.

The bigger concern than SPF is actually your application of the sunscreen. Because of the sunscreen’s expensive price tag, most users don’t follow the instructions and don’t adequately apply their sunscreen. You need a full ounce to get enough protection. Use less than that and you get much less protection than the label advertises. Half an ounce of SPF 100 isn’t like using a “full dose” of SPF 50. It’s more like using an SPF 8. So make sure that you follow the product instructions and apply the correct amount.

Some companies now state that their reasoning behind the increased SPF numbers is to provide some level of protection to those majority of users who don’t apply enough cream, or don’t reapply it often enough. Pick an adequate SPF and apply it often!

Remember that it rubs and sweats off, so reapplying often is also a very important factor. When it’s all said and done, properly using your sunscreen can be an expensive venture. But when you compared that expense to the value of your health, the decision to use it is clear.

Worried About Skin Cancer? Find Out What Sunscreen SPF Really Means

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