Sunscreen made easy: understanding UVA, UVB, and SPF

Woman Applying Sunscreen --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis
Woman Applying Sunscreen --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Are you a sunscreen expert? Most people know they need to use sunscreen but their knowledge ends right there, so here’s my ever so simple guide to SPF, UVA, UVB and how you can protect your skin from the sun.

When it comes to protecting our bodies from the sun, it’s important to have a clear understanding of why sun protection is so important for everyone, everyday.

Let’s break it all down and eliminate any confusion regarding sun protection. We often see acronyms on our skin care products, cosmetics, and clothing but do you know what they mean?

SPF = Sun Protection Factor

UVA = Ultra Violet A (long wave)

UVB = Ultra Violet B (short wave)

To protect our skin, we need to be conscientious of the damaging UVA and UVB rays of the sun. They are two very different types of radiation that can damage your skin. To make it simple, remember UVA – A for Aging as these are the rays that age your skin. And, think UVB – B for Burning as these are the rays that burn your skin.

UVA rays cause premature aging

UVA rays are responsible for skin aging and wrinkling and can contribute to skin cancer. Because UVA rays pass easily through the ozone layer, they make up the majority of sun exposure. UVA rays can pass through clouds, glass and clothing. You might not be able to feel them but boy are they there

UVB rays cause sunburn

UVB rays are responsible for sunburns and cataracts, and they can affect the immune system. Most importantly, UVB rays also contribute to skin cancer.

SPF lets you know how long you can stay in the sun

Sun Protection Factor (or SPF) found in our sunscreen products, does not indicate the amount of protection you will get but instead gives you an idea of how long you can stay in the sun before your skin starts to redden. And, everybody is different! SPF ONLY applies to the UVB rays. It does not apply to the UVA rays. SPF products come in various levels including SPF 15, SPF 30, SPF 50 and more. Here’s how they work: for the sake of easy math let’s say that your skin will start to redden when exposed to the sun in just ten minutes. You would take that ten minutes and multiply it by the SPF number you are using.

For example, if you are using an SPF 30 product:

– 10 minutes x 30 (SPF) = 300 minutes

– Take the 300 minutes and divide by 60 minutes which equals 1 hour

– 300 minutes / 60 minutes = 5

– The result: around 5 hours of standard sun protection

If you’re at the beach or in direct sunshine for extended periods, then always err on the side of caution with sunscreen and your chosen sun protection factor. It’s important to not have a false sense of security when it comes to your sunscreen. Many products are not water proof or sweat proof, so you wouldn’t be able to rely on five hours of protection if you were swimming or exercising. The key would be to apply, apply and reapply.

Top 11 sunscreen tips

Always apply sunscreen, whatever the season.

When purchasing sunscreen products always look for “broad spectrum protection” on the label to ensure you are protected against both UVA and UVB rays.

The proper amount of sunscreen for your body is about 1 oz. (or 30ml) which is just enough to fill a shot glass. And you need a teaspoon (5 grams) of sunscreen just for your face.

Apply sunscreen at least 15 to 20 minutes before going into the sun. If your skin is already red from the sun, the damage has already started.

It’s important to protect every exposed area of the skin including your ears and any bald spots.

Wear protective clothing such as long sleeved shirts, long pants and wide-brimmed hats.

Wear sunglasses that provide UVA and UVB protection. Not only can your eyelids burn but exposure to the UVB rays can lead to cataracts.

Don’t think you’re protected in your car or looking out a window – the sun’s rays can penetrate glass so protect yourself even if you’re not in direct sunlight.

Make a habit of reapplying sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating.

Stay out of the sun during the hottest hours of the day and seek the shade as much as possible.

If you simply have to have a tan, use self-tanner. (But remember to wear sunscreen too!)

The sun is a wonderful thing that we all enjoy but the facts are the facts. Unprotected sun exposure is the leading culprit in skin aging and skin cancer. We must protect ourselves each and every day to ensure we live long and healthy lives – while looking fabulous!

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