In preparation for a hike, I was recently in the Boise Co-op in search of sun protection. As always at this time of year, I was overwhelmed by the dizzying array of sun protection products. These products ranged in price from a modest six bucks to a king's ransom of $28. My confusion was compounded by the all the available SPF choices. So, what gives? I don't want to expose myself to skin cancer, but I also don't want to overspend. Is sun protection worth the extra 20 bucks?
Call me Sunny
When I was a kid growing up in Florida, our family used to make a regular summer trip to a Howard Johnson's on Cocoa Beach. On the very first day of the vacation, my older brother and I would use black electrical tape to spell out our names on each other's backs and then run around in the surf all day. Later, once we were burned to a crisp, peeling away the tape left our names visible for the remainder of the stay. It was then that I first learned about the pain of sunburn, the pitfalls of trusting my brother, and the embarrassment of a weeklong "WUSS" stenciled onto my back.
Trying to sleep with red, raw skin would have been much easier had my family used sunscreen in the 1970s. And now, those sunburns mean a much higher likelihood of skin cancer for my brother and me. Studies have shown that a mere five sunburns before adulthood doubles your cancer risk, and that 80 percent of sun-related skin damage occurs before your 18th birthday. Incidentally, a similar percentage of damage to a younger brother's self-esteem occurs by the same date.
There are two kinds of damaging rays in sunlight. UVB are ultraviolet burning rays that produce sunburns, while UVA rays are actually more harmful since they damage genetic material within skin cells. This second type of injury results in a higher likelihood of cancer development and may be the single largest cause of premature aging (next largest cause: writing a weekly column). While UVB is more intense at midday, UVA is present all day long and can pass through both clouds and your car's window glass.
The value of the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rates only ability to block the burning UVB raysthe more damaging UVA rays will penetrate most typical sunscreens. SPF ratings can be thought of as a measure of the amount of UVB blockedthe higher the number, the less radiation gets through. If you typically burn in 15 minutes, using a cream with an SPF of 20 allows you to stay outdoors for five hours (15 x 20 = 300 minutes). Sounds good, right? But, all that extra time allows UVA to silently generate long-term damage beneath your skin.
Unlike the chemical block of regular sunscreen, stopping UVA radiation requires a physical block, best illustrated by the white beaks of zinc oxide sported by the lifeguards at my childhood Howard Johnson's. Through micronizing (breaking into teeny, tiny particles), engineers can now produce effective, but nearly colorless, zinc or titanium oxides. By blending them invisibly into advanced sunscreens, these compounds help you avoid being mistaken for the lead in a beach production of The Mikado.
As for the price differences among products, simply choose a sunscreen labeled "broad spectrum" or "total block." These names indicate the contents include both UVB absorbing substances (use SPF as a guide) and UVA reflecting compounds (zinc, titanium or the patented Helioplex).
Much more important than a sunscreen's price is proper application. Many studies have shown that people use less than half the amount necessary for protection and don't reapply nearly often enough. Your minimum slather should be one full ounce, or a glob about the size of a ping-pong ball. Even the best sunscreens lose potency quickly, so an additional ounce should be applied every two hours (all types, even waterproof). An SPF rating above 15 may be overkill unless you are quite fair or have a history of skin cancer (SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of UVB, while SPF 30 blocks only 4 percent more). Lastly, allow me to share a painful adult lesson: "Never neglect a naked noggin."
Had we used sunscreen in those golden days at Cocoa Beach, I might today be able to smell Noxzema without having hellish flashbacks. As it is, I guess I have to chance really being a wuss and use proper sun protection. Otherwise, I'm likely to become some leathery old man shuffling along the shore with wraparound sunglasses and a public radio tote bag.