A sure sign that spring and summer are upon us is the location of your local retailer's sunscreen shelves, which are now front and center - not to mention the dazed look of frazzled folks overwhelmed by so many options.
SPF, UVA, UVB, what does it all mean? IMO, all those TLA's are enough to make a person crazy.
Let's start at the beginning.
UVA/UVB – both of these are ultraviolet rays. Basically, UVA are the aging rays, and UVB are the burning rays. You don't want too much of either of these, which is why a "broad spectrum" sunscreen is the best option. Sunscreens contain chemicals that absorb or reflect UV rays.
SPF means Sunburn Protection Factor. Basically, SPF tells you the protection offered against UVB rays but not against UVA rays. If it's SPF 15, that means you can be in the sun 15 times longer than someone without sunscreen before beginning to burn. The higher the SPF, the greater the protection against UVB rays; however a high number can give a false sense of security. Furthermore, the effectiveness of the sunscreen is affected by a number of things including how often it is applied, how much is absorbed into the skin, the activity engaged in, and the skin type of the user.
Currently, there is no benchmark rating used for UVA rays. For good UVA protection look for products containing zinc oxide, avobenzone, and ecamsule.
And then, there are the water resistant and waterproof sunscreens. According to FDA regulations, "water resistant" means the product maintains its level of protection after 40 minutes of water immersion. The FDA doesn't like to see any label stating "waterproof," because no sunscreen truly is. However, manufacturers will label it "waterproof" if protection levels are maintained after 80 minutes.
The general rule of thumb is that it should take a handful of sunscreen to properly cover the body. For you, that would be an adult-size handful. For your child, it's a child-size handful. As they grow, their hands get bigger, and you'll automatically be putting enough on.
Sunscreen comes in a lot of different forms. Sprays, lotions, gels, fun colors, there's plenty to choose from. When possible, find a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen that contains either zinc oxide, avobenzone, or ecamsule.
Babies under 6 months of age should be kept out of the sun as much as possible, and try to use a wide brimmed hat and loose fitting clothing to shield them. For all children over 6 months I recommend to use at least SPF 30.
In one word – frequently. For best results, follow instructions on the sunscreen container. And while you're doing that, check the expiration date. Sunscreen loses its effectiveness beyond the expiration date or if it’s over 2 years old.
Sticking with it:
Make sunscreen application a part of the established "going out" routine, similar to how a bedtime routine includes brushing teeth.
You can say "Okay Jane, we're going to the swimming pool, but you know the drill. First, get undressed and let me put on your sunscreen. Jimmy, you can set the timer on the microwave for 30 minutes. Then go get your swimsuits on. When the timer goes off, we're off."
Hopefully, by the time Jane and Jimmy are teenagers – when they will be more inclined to think whatever you tell them is wrong - you will have established a habit of sun safety to where they won't think twice about going out without sunscreen.
If they hesitate, tell them to get on the computer and Google "skin cancer." If they find a site with photos, that's even better. Tell your daughter to Google "aging" so she can see how a suntan today means wrinkles tomorrow.
Vitamin D or sunscreen?
Lately, there's been a debate in the medical community. The AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) has come out with a very strong statement about the need for Vitamin D, which comes from food and exposure to the sun (UVB rays).
They are tying low levels of Vitamin D to poor bone health, a higher risk of certain cancers, and diseases such as diabetes and multiple sclerosis.
Until we get more information and data, my take on this is that it's a work in progress. An appropriate level of Vitamin D is necessary for good health, but so is an appropriate level of sun protection.
One thing we do know to be fact is that too much sunlight increases the risk of melanomas and other skin cancers.
On that note, here's a question for you. Are you, or your child, the type that "tans, never burns?" If so, you're still at risk of developing skin cancer. It's a myth that only those who sunburn get melanoma. It's exposure, which adds up throughout your life, particularly too much exposure in early life.
I suggest Houstonians plan outdoor activities before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m., when the sun is not at its peak. I highly recommend full body swimwear for both girls and boys. Cover up with clothing – T-shirts can be worn over the top of bathing suits – the darker the better. A wet white T-shirt offers little protection against the sun. Wear wide-brimmed hats at the park. Sunglasses will protect your eyes – kids love wearing "cool" sunglasses. Use a lip balm with SPF on your lips, and sunscreen of at least SPF 30 on your skin.
Remember, sunscreen is only as good as where you put it. Don't forget to apply it to the tips of the ears, backs of the knees, between the toes…and anywhere else the sun does indeed shine.
The ABC's of safe sun:
A is for Away: stay away from the sun in the middle of the day, when rays are most damaging, even on cloudy days. In Houston, this means from 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.
B is for Block: Block the sun's rays by using a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30. Apply it 30 minutes before going out, and reapply often throughout the day.
C is for Cover up: use protective clothing such as long-sleeve shirts, hats, or clothing with a tight weave to keep out as much sunlight as possible. Use lip balm for your lips, and sunglasses for your eyes. Babies under six months of age should be kept out of direct sunlight.