UVA, UVB, SPF – understanding your sunscreen label

outdoorfunSummertime for most people means spending more time outside. Many vacations destinations are beaches, relaxing at the poolside or other activities that involve being outdoors. Sunshine can help in many ways, including getting Vitamin D from sun exposure and helping to boost your mood. To make the most of sunshine and its benefits, here’s the key to understanding your sunscreen label.

It’s important to protect your skin when you are outside, because of the risk for skin cancer. About 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers and 65% of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun. One way to protect your skin is to apply sunscreen. Sunscreen labels may look like alphabet soup: UVA, UVB and SPF are printed on sunscreen labels. Do you know which is right for you? Understanding your sunscreen options and the ingredients can be confusing so the Skin Cancer Foundation provides the public with reliable information about sunscreens:

What are sunscreens?

Sunscreens are products combining several ingredients that help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin.

What are UVA and UVB?

Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is part of the electromagnetic (light) spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. It has wavelengths shorter than visible light, making it invisible to the naked eye. Ultraviolet A (UVA) is the longer wave UV ray that causes lasting skin damage, skin aging, and can cause skin cancer. Ultraviolet B (UVB) is the shorter wave UV ray that causes sunburns, skin damage, and can cause skin cancer.

What is SPF?

SPF – or Sun Protection Factor – is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. Here’s how it works:  If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer – about five hours. Most sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher do an excellent job of protecting against UVB.

What does broad-spectrum mean?

Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Beginning in December 2012, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) implemented new rules for “broad-spectrum” products. These regulations establish a standard test for over-the-counter (sold without a prescription) sunscreen products that will determine which products are allowed to be labeled as “Broad Spectrum.”

Who should use sunscreen?

Anyone over the age of six months should use a sunscreen daily. Children under the age of six months should not be exposed to the sun, since their skin is highly sensitive to the chemical ingredients in sunscreen as well as to the sun’s rays. Shade and protective clothing are the best ways to protect infants from the sun.

You should apply 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) of the sunscreen on your body. Be generous with your lotion! Sunscreens should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredient to fully bind to the skin. Reapplication of sunscreen is just as important as putting it on in the first place, so reapply the same amount every two hours. Sunscreens should also be reapplied immediately after swimming, toweling off, or sweating a great deal. Don’t forget to protect ears, noses, lips, and the tops of feet.

Do you have a sunscreen that you liked?  Please feel free to leave a recommendation in the comment section.

Learn more about skin cancer prevention:


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