Protect your skin from ultraviole(n)t rays

The sun is out and the sky is blue. Powerful rays, beams of light and heat, are touching our skin. It feels like as if we’re closer to the sun, but the Earth is actually farthest away from it during this season. It’s all about the tilted rotation… Summertime!

With the warm weather we tend to enjoy our time staying outdoors longer, but those beloved ultraviolet wavelengths of light (UVA and UVB) travelling through space and coming directly to us are quite harmful. Unprotected exposure to the sun can lead to sunburned skin and this can cause permanent damage over time, so you might need to have some sunscreen at hand.

People select sunscreen products based on their SPF (sun protection factor), a measurement of how long you can be on the sun without burning. For example, if it takes 20 minutes for your bare skin to start getting red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen will protect you 15 times longer (around five hours). However, you still need to reapply it every two hours because of sweating, being in the water, and similar factors that will breakdown the effectiveness of the sunscreen.

Protect your skin. Photo by Ian Dooley

The difference between SPF 15 and higher SPF products is not that much but it can still make a difference (SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of UVB rays and SPF 50 around 98 percent of UVB rays). A higher protection of SPF 50 helps better for people with sensitive skin and it also makes up for the fact that most people don’t apply enough sunscreen. The problem with high SPF products is that people assume that they are better protected and tend to stay longer in the sun without reapplying and therefore exposing themselves to ultraviolet radiation. Thus, no matter how high the SPF is, don’t forget to reapply every two hours.

Sunscreen is designed to be applied over large areas of the body several times per day and the ingredients in it shouldn’t be irritating or cause skin allergies. Sunblock products commonly include ingredients that help the product adhere to skin, and so many of the product chemicals are absorbed through the skin and can be detected in blood and urine.

Sunbathing on the beach. Photo by Guzman Barquin

Active ingredients in sunscreens come in three forms: chemical filters, mineral filters, and a combination of both. Chemical filters typically include a combination of the following active ingredients: benzophenone-3 (aka oxybenzone), ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, ethylhexyl triazone, octocrylene, phenoxyethanol. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients.

The most troubling ingredient is benzophenone-3 because it can cause allergic skin reactions and is a weak estrogen. A good and wise option would be to avoid sunscreens containing benzophenone-3 and specially avoid it with kids younger than two years old since their organism doesn’t have the ability to metabolise this ingredient. Benzophenone-3 (oxybenzone) has even been recently banned in Hawaii due to its role in coral bleaching and coral death. Mineral sunscreen made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that are “non-nano” in size are considered safe. However, the environmental impact of nanoscale and conventional zinc and titanium dioxide is still unknown and has to be yet evaluated.

But don’t depend just on sunscreen for sun protection. Wear hats, sunglasses and find shade or make it to protect your skin from UV rays. Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours and avoid sprays (yes… sprays don’t provide a thick and uniform coating and can pose an inhalation risk) and products with benzophenone-3, specially with kids younger than two years old. Enjoy the sun, the waves and the beach, and don’t get burned!