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WTF is SPF?

Growing up, I distinctly remember my Dad constantly saying “it’s time to reapply sunscreen!” every hour at the beach. My brother and I (and later our little sis, too) would roll our eyes and whine, “Really? Already?! Come ON, Dad!” To which he’d reply, “And be sure to let it soak in for 10 minutes before you get back in the water!” Cue more eye rolling. I’m not sure why we were so irritated by this, but in hindsight, I’m so grateful for our parents’ diligence in pushing the sunscreen. It saved us the temporary discomfort and pain that comes with sunburn, plus kept our skin healthy for the long run.

The Basics

In simplest terms, SPF, or Sun Protection Factor is a measure of how well a sunscreen will protect skin from UVB rays, the kind of radiation that causes sunburn, damages skin, and can contribute to skin cancer.While true protection really depends on more factors than just the SPF, like your skin type and the intensity of the sun, the SPF will give you a good idea of your level of protection. SPF essentially gives you a factor for the length of time you, theoretically, can stay in the sun before your skin burns. If your skin usually starts turning red after 10 minutes in the sun without sunscreen, using sunscreen with SPF 30 would allow you to stay in the sun for 300 minutes (10 x 30) before your skin starts turning red.

You Should Wear It Year-Round

PSA: Sunscreen isn’t just for summer. You should be wearing it year-round—in this Forbes interview with Board Certified Dermatologist Dr. Shilesh Iyer, M.D., she says:

“Ultraviolet rays that are the cause of sun damage and skin cancer are always present. They are independent of cold or hot weather, and are not blocked by clouds. On overcast days, only visible rays (but not UVB rays) from the sun are blocked. The best way to protect the skin is with sun protection.”

Find a foundation or face lotion that has SPF in it that you can put on daily to protect your skin (and avoid sun spots and wrinkles)—and apply sunscreen to your hands and arms before you drive!

What “Number” To Use

SPF 50 is the highest protection you really need. Typically, more chemicals are used in SPFs higher than 50, and higher SPFs tend to give people a false sense of safety. (Hey, I can stay out longer since it’s SPF 100!) In reality, you should be reapplying sunscreen every 1-2 hours, so higher SPFs aren’t necessary. You can find some more info on reapplying and SPF numbers here.

Broad-Spectrum Protection

Look for sunscreen that includes “broad-spectrum protection.” SPF is the measure of protection against UVB rays, and broad-spectrum protection is additional protection to keep you safe from UVA rays. Read more about UVA and UVB rays here. 

Check The Ingredients

This is a big one—a lot of traditional sunscreens can be filled with ingredients that aren’t the greatest for your skin—find a good mineral-based sunscreen, and avoid ingredients like oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, and instead look for products that use ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Keep Babies In The Shade

As much as you possibly can, it’s best to keep babies six months or younger out of direct sunlight for long periods of time—you should use a mineral-based sunscreen for infants, and  make sure they’re wearing a hat and lightweight clothing that covers their skin. If you’re headed to the beach or another outdoor event, just grab a tent or umbrella so baby (and you) can enjoy in comfort!

TL;DR

Your parents weren’t lying to you. Sunscreen is important. Put it on before you spend any length of time in the sun. And reapply it about every two hours, or sooner if you’re swimming. 

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