In Iowa, we wait months for the summer sun to arrive so we can bask in its rays and bring back our “healthy glow.” Contrary to popular belief, there’s nothing healthy about a tan.
“All tans are bad. Any time you have a tan, it means you have skin damage due to UV exposure,” says Pam Harrison Chambers, M.P.H., PA-C, associate professor at Des Moines University and physician assistant at UnityPoint Health – Des Moines. “Broad spectrum sunscreens help screen out some of the rays that cause skin damage, cataracts and cancer. You should apply sunscreen before you leave the house every day. Just walking to your car exposes you to the sun.”
Constantly wearing a coat of sunscreen may sound extreme, but it’s an easy and effective way to protect you from the sun’s harmful rays — especially considering that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.
“Most people underdo it. It takes at least a shot glass full to cover you — and that’s conservative. Err on the side of more sunscreen,” Chambers says. “Sunscreens should be applied at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure so the active ingredients can take effect and reapplied every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating, reapply more often.”
With lotions, oils, sticks and sprays, it can be difficult navigating the sunscreen aisle. Reading labels used to be of no help, but that changed in 2012 when the Food and Drug Administration established regulations for sunscreens. Now sunscreens must be broad spectrum, meaning they protect against both UVA and UVB rays. They can no longer be labeled as waterproof or sweat proof and must say how long you can be in the sun before you need to reapply.
No sunscreen can shield you from all UV rays, so it is also important to understand the difference in SPF levels. SPF — or Sun Protection Factor — measures a sunscreen’s effectiveness in protecting against UVA and UVB rays. An SPF 15 sunscreen filters 93% of rays and helps prevent sunburn for up to 15 times longer than unprotected skin in some people. SPF 30 keeps out 97% of rays for up to 30 times as long while SPF 50 is 98% effective for up to 50 times as long.
“You should wear a minimum of SPF 15 every day, rain or shine. The best kind of sunscreen for you is the kind that you’re going to use, the kind that feels comfortable to you,” advises Chambers.