An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Hiding from the Sun

Why SPF 100 is worth it for me

I was getting ready for work when I heard the breaking health news. A watchdog group claimed that many brands of sunscreen flaunt misleading Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ratings that give consumers a false sense of security.

I laughed as I dumped out the contents of my makeup bag and counted the number of products containing SPF. There are five—five products that I smear on my face every morning—and two have SPF ratings of 50 or higher. That doesn’t even include the SPF 100 lotion that I use to shield my arms, hands, legs and feet from the sun’s harmful rays.

According to the watchdog group, and even some dermatologists, all my sunscreens with SPF ratings above 50 could be lulling me into believing that it is OK to stay in the sun long after the lotion has stopped protecting my skin.

Now, perhaps I’m not the average consumer, because at any given moment during daylight hours, with or without SPF 100, I assume the sun is out to get me.

I keep sunscreen in my home, purse, car, office and gym bag. Most of these products have an SPF of 50, 85 or 100, which I apply liberally every single day. I’m not stingy either. If I see that you need sunscreen, I will offer to share my SPF stash. Just accept it. Resistance will be futile.

On days when I must be out in the sun, I reapply—probably even more than is necessary or recommended.

When buying clothes, fabrics with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) are a huge selling point. And when Adelaide Hebert, MD, my fabulous dermatologist at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth), told me about a laundry product that allows you to wash sun protection right into your clothes, you would have thought she had just given me the winning lottery numbers.

Giant floppy hats are a must-have. In an attempt to shade myself from the sun and avoid bursting into flames, I’ve also been known to use a notepad, a not-so-fresh-smelling beach towel, a broken umbrella and yes, even a shelter intended for my friend’s dogs.

Extreme? Maybe.

I wasn’t always this way. As a child, I remember the bottle of “suntan lotion” with an SPF of 8 in my mother’s beach bag. She said we only needed to use it if “we got too much sun.” That bottle remained at the bottom of her straw tote bag for years. No one ever used the SPF 8. We used oil with absolutely no sun protection and we were tan, tan, tan.

Now, after decades of carefree sunbathing and a brief stint as a lifeguard, the sun damage has surfaced. On my face, there are dark spots—solar lentigines—which Dr. Hebert works in earnest to keep under wraps. My arms and legs have their fair share of spots, too. In addition to the dark splotches, there are a few moles that my watchful dermatologist checks regularly.

I consider myself to be extremely lucky. My sun damage may be an unsightly cosmetic issue, but so far it hasn’t impacted my health. And with a few huge hats, buckets of sunscreen and assistance from my dermatologist, I hope to keep it that way.

The watchdog group says many consumers assume that SPF 100 is twice as effective as SPF 50 when the difference between the two is actually negligible. Where an SPF 50 product might protect against 97 percent of the rays that cause sunburn, a product with an SPF of 100 might block 98.5 percent.

I would argue that 98.5 percent is still better than 97 percent.

Protection against harmful rays

Dr. Hebert doesn’t necessarily agree with my logic, but she is supportive. She says everyone—especially those living in the South—should wear a minimum of SPF 30. Anything over SPF 50 is probably unnecessary, but as long as you are using it correctly, the products labeled SPF 100 certainly aren’t harmful.

Here are some of Dr. Hebert’s tips for protecting my skin and yours from the sun’s harmful rays:

  • Broad-spectrum sunscreens offer protection against two types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB, which cause skin damage and increase your risk of skin cancer. Whether it’s SPF 30 or SPF 100, choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen you will actually use. If the sunscreen is too messy, leaves white residue on your skin or smells funny, you won’t want to use it and it will likely end up at the bottom of your beach bag while you bake in the sun.
  • Make sure you check your sunscreen's expiration date. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.
  • Use sunscreen every day—even on cloudy days and even if you plan to spend minimal time outdoors.
  • When it comes to shopping for sunscreen, price doesn’t necessarily reflect efficacy. You should be looking for products that include avobenzone, Helioplex, titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. For maximum sun protection, Dr. Hebert prefers the creamy lotions to the spray-on sunscreens. She also says the titanium dioxide and zinc oxide products may be best for those with skin sensitivities.
  • Heading to the beach for a little vacation? Dr. Hebert recommends that you use two sunscreen products. First apply a product containing avobenzone or Helioplex, and then follow up with a layer of a sunscreen containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. This will insure that you are using enough sunscreen, and it will also lessen your risk of missing a spot or two.
  • Tops are the most frequently missed spots—tops of the ears, tops of the feet and top of the head. Applying sunscreen to those areas should be top of mind.
  • Your bathing suit may not stay put, so make sure you apply sunscreen underneath straps and near drawstrings or elastic edges.
  • Apply sunscreen liberally and often. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends at least an ounce of sunscreen—enough to fill a shot glass—applied to exposed areas of the skin every two hours and after swimming or heavy sweating. Depending on your body size, you may need more than an ounce.
  • Don’t want your lips to be sun-kissed? Use a lip balm with SPF.
  • Use sunscreen in combination with hats, clothing and shade, which boost protection against ultraviolet radiation. Also wear wraparound sunglasses to protect your eyes.
  • Is the sting of sunscreen hurting your eyes and your golf game? Dr. Hebert says there are new wax-based, lip balm-like sunscreen products that do a great job of staying put on the skin without dripping into your eyes.
  • Worried your sunscreen may lower your skin’s ability to produce Vitamin D? The good news is that most people get the vitamin D they need from food and/or vitamin supplements, but if you have concerns, talk to you doctor.
  • Perform your own monthly skin exams. If you are over the age of 40 and see a new mole or changes in existing moles, see a dermatologist. Any mole that is bleeding, painful, has darkened or has changed size or shape should be examined by a physician.
  • For a healthy glow, stay away from tanning salons. Even infrequent visits to the tanning bed can markedly increase your risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Dr. Hebert says spray-on or bottled tanning products are fine, but keep in mind that they do not offer protection from the sun’s rays. You’ll still need sunblock.
  • If you have a personal or family history of skin cancer, follow your physician’s recommendations about how frequently you should have skin cancer screenings. If you are comfortable with it, Dr. Hebert also recommends that you share your skin cancer history with your friends, family and even your hair stylist so they can help you be on the lookout for any skin changes.

Follow these tips and you should be made in the shade. But if for some reason you end up out in the sun without any protection, I’ve got the SPF goods. I’ve got you covered.

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