From a young age, we’ve been told just how important it is to use sunscreen. But what do you really know about it?
How Do Sunscreens Work?
Did you know that sunscreens protect the skin from burning in one of two ways, by either absorbing the harmful rays using chemicals UV absorbers like oxybenzone8 and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor or reflecting these rays from the skin using physical barriers like zinc oxide and titanium oxide. These ingredients are called the ‘active ingredients’.
Current Debate Around Actives
There is an ongoing debate about sunscreen ingredients, specifically chemical UV actives and their effect on hormones and now new concerns have emerged about their possible damaging effect to our reefs. Hawaii has become the first US state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing two common chemicals because of their potential damaging impact on coral reefs.
The Australian Standard for sunscreens allows a maximum sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 50. While this sounds like a significantly higher level of protection than an SPF30 the difference is not really in the amount of UV protection. An SPF 50 sunscreen will filter 98% of UV radiation while an SPF30 product filters 96.7% so the difference is not large.
What Does SPF Mean?
SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. SPF numbers are an approximate indication of how much protection from the sun a product will provide for your skin. Everyone’s skin is different and each person’s skin can be exposed to the sun for different lengths of time before burning. Sunscreen extends the time before burning by a multiple of the SPF. For example, if you have fair skin and would normally burn in 5 minutes without any sun protection then an SPF 30 will give you 30 x 5 minutes protection.
The issue is that all sunscreens will rub off over time with normal activity and perspiration and so in some cases, the higher SPF can give a false sense of security. The most important thing to remember is that no sunscreen provides total protection and will rub off over time, that's why it is always important to reapply regularly and cover up using appropriate clothing and eyewear especially during the hottest part of the day.
Infants and People with Sensitive Skin
It’s important to note that an infant’s skin is different from an adult’s. Our bodies produce a pigment called melanin that protects our skin from ultraviolet damage but an infant produces less melanin than an adult which means that their skin will burn more quickly.
An infant’s skin is thinner and contains more water than an adult. Also the top layer of an infant’s skin called the epidermis doesn’t bond as tightly to the layer below called the dermis. So unlike adult skin that has a tight seal between these layers, an infant’s skin is easier to pass. This is significant when also coupled with the fact that infants lack fully developed detoxification systems.
Babies and infants should be kept out of direct sun exposure but if you need to use a sunscreen chose a sunscreen for sensitive skin with a physical active like zinc that is dispersed in a natural lotion.
People with sensitive skin often find that they react to conventional sunscreens, so a natural sunscreen alternative with gentle ingredients and an SPF of 30 will be their best option too.
Always remember to wear appropriate clothing, hats and eyewear, stay out of midday sun and reapply sunscreen regularly.