Only Skin Deep? How to Maximize Sunscreen Efficacy
Ladies, if you could equip your friends and family with an invisible “bulletproof vest” that would protect them from any unseen dangers, you would do it in a heartbeat. Having a secure way of ensuring your loved ones’ safety all day, every day, would definitely make your job easier. And what if I told you that your search for this invisible, yet effective “bulletproof vest” is merely a mouse click away? That lifesaving product is called sunscreen.
Sunscreen, when used properly, works much akin to a thin and almost invisible bulletproof vest that contains organic molecules that absorb, scatter, and reflect UV rays, thus protecting you from a silent killer called the sun. Over-exposure to UV rays means a significantly increased risk for skin cancer, which is the world’s most commonly diagnosed cancer.
In fact, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, someone in the United States dies every hour from melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer. Yet, 90% of skin cancers are preventable if we are proactive about properly protecting ourselves from over-exposure to UV-rays from the sun. Among the simplest, most effective preventative measures we can take is by properly and regularly applying sunscreen.
Two decades ago, sunscreen was relatively unheard of, whereas today it has become apart of our common jargon. Heightened awareness of skin cancer and the importance of sunscreen, even sun protective clothing have, in ways, only further confused us and perhaps even caused us to ignore the warnings.
Have you ever wondered why there have been occasions when you slapped on a pound of sunscreen before hitting the lake only to return home burnt to a crisp? The problem is, we are told to use sunscreen but we aren’t instructed on how to properly apply it; to maximize its efficacy.
Unlike a bulletproof vest, however, sunscreen must be re-applied in order for it to properly provide protection from ultraviolet (UV) rays. Consider the 30-20-2 rule: Apply a SPF 15+ sunscreen to your skin at least 30-minutes prior to going outdoors (even on cloudy days), then reapply within the first 20-minutes of being outside to reinforce the protective barrier the sunscreen provides, and then apply sunscreen consistently in two hour intervals. For children under 18, sunscreen must be applied every hour. The reason sunscreen works in this way is based on the mechanics of our skin.
Our skin works much like a sponge does. The top layer of our skin, called the epidermis, absorbs sunscreen, forming a protective layer on the skin that blocks UV rays from reaching the melanocytes (or “pigmentation cells”) that lie deep within the skin. Yet, your skin—the largest bodily organ—reaches its saturation point after approximately two hours, thus leaving you unprotected and causing sunburn and/or other skin-related damage. Hence, it is imperative that sunscreen must be reapplied in order to enhance its protective powers.
Alas, not all sunscreen products out on the market today work proficiently. To deliver optimum level of protection, sunscreen must have sufficient amounts of essential ingredients. In other words, when choosing a sunscreen product for your family, take a look at the bottle; make sure it contains proven effective agents such as zinc oxide and Parasol 1789.
Furthermore, make sure the product is a broad-spectrum formula, meaning that it blocks both UV-B and UV-A rays. If the sunscreen is not broad-spectrum formula, do not buy it. You are not being sufficiently protected nor “covered” if your sunscreen does not clearly indicate that it protects from both UV-A and UV-B rays.
The significance of a broad-spectrum sunscreen cannot be over-emphasized. UV-B and UV-A rays have varied affects on your skin, your immune system, and your body as a whole. UV-B irradiation disrupts the melanocytes (the cells deep beneath the epidermis of your skin responsible for your pigmentation), causing them to release the “redness” known as sunburn.
Any change in the color of your skin as a result of over-exposure to the sun is a sign of damage, even if your skin tends to “tan” as opposed to burn. When this occurs, your melanocytes are trying to tell you that normal, healthy cells have been severely disrupted and therefore are attempting to compensate for that damage.
On the other hand, damage to your skin caused by UV-A irradiation is far more serious. UV-A rays are especially harmful as they penetrate deeper, breaking bonds of DNA which lead to cancer. You typically do not see the immediate effects of UV-A rays, but they are the chief culprit behind photo-aging and wrinkling in addition to actinic keratoses, a pre-cancerous skin condition. Damage to your cells as a result from over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun or from a tanning bed is un-repairable.
Consider the following analogy: Have you ever left a basketball outside in the hot summer sun for a lengthy period of time? And after you retrieved the ball, you immediately notice that the elasticity of the ball is weakened—it feels “rubbery” and never quite “bounces back”? This is exactly what happens to your skin as a result of prolonged UV-A exposure. Both UV-B and UV-A rays have cumulative affects and coupled together often lead to melanoma skin cancer.
Thusly, make sure you understand “SPF” when purchasing a brand of sunscreen, and do not be fooled by those that claim to deliver a high level of protection. For starters, “SPF” stands for sun protection factor (or “sunburn protection factor”). The way SPF works can be best described by the following example: A SPF 20 sunscreen is only allowing five out of every 100 UV protons to reach your skin. In other words, it is blocking out 95% of the UV rays from reaching your skin.
That being said, dermatologist-oncologist Sancy A. Leachman, director of the Tom C. Mathews Jr. Familial Melanoma Research Clinic at the Huntsman Cancer Institute, recommends a SPF 15 sunscreen as ideal for daily, year-round use. Yet, if you are planning a long, leisurely day at the lake (or even a marathon day on the ski slopes), you will want to opt for a SPF 30 sunscreen, such as Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, and be sure to apply the 30-20-2 rule so as to prevent a painful reminder of your day of recreation.
In reality, sunscreen usage among Americans today has decreased by nearly 60%, according to a recent report by the American Academy of Dermatology. Could the lack of sun safety behavior be contributing to the ever-increasing skin cancer incidence and mortality? Certainly, the world’s most common cancer could be easily prevented if we are proactive about choosing effective sunscreens and properly, proactively maximizing their efficacy.