Are you slathering on the SPF correctly? Consider this your everything-under-the-sun guide on the what, when, why and how of wearing sunscreen
By Adriana Ermter
Remember the anti-drug PSAs from the ’80s that featured a raw egg being cracked into a sizzling frying pan with the tagline: “This is your brain on drugs”? It was the more-is-better decade when we also used to grease up in baby oil—complete with a healthy splash of lemon juice in our hair—before sitting in the sun nestled beneath a metallic reflector screen that bounced the sun’s rays directly onto our face. Ironically, the way we treated our skin then was much like the commercial’s burning egg. Thankfully, we now know better. And we have sunscreen. But are you wearing it?
“Wearing sunscreen helps protect our skin against skin cancer,” says Dr. Lisa Kellett, a dermatologist and founder of DLK on Avenue in Toronto. “Both UVA (think: aging) and UVB (think: burning) rays can cause redness and cellular damage. If you burn or even tan, you have damaged your skin. It’s like smoking, overeating and drinking too much. You are stressing your body’s way of defending itself.”
According to Dr. Kellett, skin cancer is the most common cancer in North America, and yet, it’s reported that only 14 per cent of men and 30 per cent of women wear sunscreen. It’s time to up the ante.
What to wear
Any sunscreen—lotions, creams, sprays—offering broad-spectrum protection against both UVA and UVB rays is the right choice. There are however, two types of protection: physical and chemical. The other important consideration is SPF (sun protection factor), which refers to the product’s ability to screen out the sun’s UVB rays.
Physical sunscreens typically contain mineral ingredients, like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and sit on top of the skin, blocking UVA and UVB rays. They can be found in products such as Cliniderm Gentle Protective Lotion SPF 45 ($32, available at drugstores) and Green Beaver Sunscreen SPF 40 ($22, at health food stores). “These SPFs adhere to the skin’s surface and reflect the UV light,” explains Leala McInerney, a senior educator for Dermalogica and the International Dermal Institute Canada. Like the pink, purple and blue-coloured zinc-based options favoured by downhill skiers, these formulations have a thicker consistency, minus the funky hues.
Chemical-based sunscreens typically contain carbon-based ingredients, like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate, and can be found in products such as Coppertone Clearly Sheer SPF 30 spray ($10, available at drugstores) and Dermalogica Daily Defense Sport SPF 50 ($46, available at spas and salons). These ingredients turn the UV rays into heat, “penetrate the skin” and then are released, “scattering the UV rays,” says McInerney. Their formulations are thinner in texture and spread on easily.
Where to wear
While most of us are probably diligent about application during the hot summer months and during tropical beach vacations, ideally you should wear sunscreen on all of your exposed body parts, all year round. “We’re subject to ultraviolet rays walking to work, sitting in the car, eating lunch at a café,” says Dr. Kellett. “All of that time combined, every single day, results in more sun exposure than you realize.”
How much is enough
In general, a shot glass-sized amount (including spray-on versions) of an SPF 30 will do the trick for your entire face and body. “If you’re engaging in activities involving swimming, sweating or physical exertion in the sun, you’ll need to reapply your sunscreen every two hours,” advises Dr. Kellett. “These activities can cause the effectiveness of the sunscreen to be diminished.”
Know the numbers game
The SPF is a numeric measurement of how effective the product is at protecting your skin against sun exposure. In recent years, these numbers have dropped as low as five and surged as high as 100. The theory: The higher the number, the longer it lasts. “It’s the number one myth about sunscreen: If I put on an SPF of 100, I’m protected all day,” warns McInerney. Higher SPFs don’t mean you can stay out in the sun longer, according to the Canadian Cancer Society; they are simply meant to increase your protection when you do have to be outside. For example, SPF 15 products block 93 per cent of UVB rays, compared to 97 per cent for products SPF 30 and higher.
“Several years ago, Health Canada and the FDA made some very important updates to SPF rules and regulations,” says McInerney. “Now, SPFs sold in North America cannot be labelled as 60, 70 or 100. They need to be marked as SPF 50+ to counteract the mentality consumers had.”
So, how high should you go? Think of it this way: Wearing an SPF 30 will allow your skin 30 times more protection than it would have if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen at all.
ADRIANA ERMTER is a Toronto-based, lifestyle-magazine-pro who has travelled the globe, writing about must-spritz fragrances, child poverty, beauty and grooming.