Don’t Forget Your SPF Today, Tomorrow and The Rest of Your Life

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I bet you’ve heard that before…I’d like to share a bit of knowledge on the benefits of wearing daily SPF vs. the risks of not. As a practicing skin therapist, these 3 letters have become ingrained in my everyday language with clients, friends and family. I am fascinated with the statistics of how many people have never had a facial vs not, and of those people who wash their skin daily and of those who wear SPF…the number is small. In fact only 14% of adults in the US alone only wear SPF 4-6 days/week. I realize it’s the least of many people’s concerns in a world of much larger chaos. But if I can change just a few people’s practice on adapting a habit of daily SPF use, I’ve done my due diligence as a proactive skin therapist. And if you’ve been here before than you know I much I also preach consistency.

But why do people not wear SPF?

“Because it smells bad”, “because I avoid the sun”, “I work indoors”, “I’m skin of color, I don’t burn”, “I wear it in my makeup”. These are all terrible and ignorant excuses I’ve heard many times before. 

There are thousands of cosmetic and skincare brands manufacturing products, surely one exists you can love that are made with ingredients that agree with your specific skin concerns, appropriate weight, satisfying smell, branded in a way that makes you happy to invest in. 

So what about understanding the numbers and labeling? When in doubt, I always advocate seeking professional skincare advice by a licensed, practicing esthetician but if you find yourself at a big box store in the cosmetic isle picking out an SPF either for daily use or for your beach vacation, then here are some tips:

What to know when shopping for SPF: 15, 30, 50…the numbers labeled next to SPF or the sun protection factor have a purpose.  It’s the measurement of how long the product will protect you from the sun, not how long you can stay in the sun. The formula is tested on how many seconds it takes for skin to begin to slightly redden vs without the sunscreen. Say it took 300 seconds for skin to burn with sunscreen, and 10 seconds to burn without it. 300 is divided by 10, which is 30. The SPF is 30. So this gives an indication of how well the sunscreen protects skin against UVB radiation which are the burning rays, not the deeper-penetrating UVA or rays responsible for aging. If you want protection against both, you’ll need to check that your sunscreen is ‘broad spectrum’. Sunscreens that have this on their label have undergone additional laboratory testing. In some manufactures due to location regulations you’ll notice a + meaning at least.  I have a friend who purposefully chooses an SPF of 4 so that he can still achieve a “tan”. Yes, we’ve had many arguments on this topic. But he is a perfect example of the misunderstanding of how an SPF actually works. On the other spectrum, SPF 100 will not 100% protect you against sun exposure or a sunburn. Thick applications of the product fully covering your entire face and body and reapplying the product in the same consistency every 2 hours is part of the full protection. How often are you reapplying? Remember sunscreen is a filter of light rays, nothing will “block” 100% of the sun’s rays.  Staying in the shade, wearing a hat, sunglasses or UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing will all ensure the best protection. SPF 30 blocks 97% of UV rays while SPF 50 blocks 98% of UV rays, both are a good choice when used liberally and frequently. Therefore, my favorite (NOT FAVORITE) thing to see is people using spray can SPF’s at the beach on a windy day! First of all, it’s invisible which makes it extremely difficult to see if you’re trying to fully cover your body. Most of the spray SPF’s on the market are alcohol based – who would enjoy that sprayed in their face in addition to what other ingredients they might contain such as inhaling titanium dioxide! It may as well be nothing because 10 out of 10 people end up with a sunburn anyway after using those products. Enough said – get a lotion!

  • Water-resistant vs waterproof – SPOILER ALERT: water-proof SPF does not exist. All SPF will eventually wash off. Yes once upon a time products were labeled as such, but in a 2011 announcement, the FDA determined this was misleading and changed the sunscreen label requirements from waterproof to water-resistant where applicable. Water-resistant sunscreens can be water-resistant for up to 40 minutes or 80 minutes therefore users need to reapply every 40 to 80 minutes after being immersed into water or heavily sweating.
  • Tanning products – so you want to achieve a tan like my SPF 4 friend. Products are available with both SPF and gradual tanning ingredients. Or get an organic spray tan or self-tanning product before hitting the beach and yes still need to slather the SPF on top.
  • Reef-safe: many manufacturers have created reef safe compliant SPF which typically mean they are mineral only UV blocking ingredients as opposed to some chemicals used in sunscreens that have been found to damage sensitive ocean life. This term “reef safe” or “reef friendly” isn’t regulated so it’s really important to check the labeling. 
  • Chemical vs physical: For some it’s a preference and for others a necessity. Chemical SPF, while not completely toxic or harmful, means the skin absorbs the UV rays and disperses them in the form of heat. The sunscreen is still protecting you as mentioned above by the sun protection factor. For those with normal skin conditions a quality chemical sunscreen is fine to use. A physical SPF means the UV rays are shielded from being absorbed, think of it as the UVs bouncing or deflecting away. Titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide are safe ingredients and formulas that  exist today and  prevent the white cask appearance or residue of this physical or mineral SPF. People with sensitive or reactive skin should use this type. In my practice I always use a physical SPF after a deeper resurfacing treatment such as chemical peels where heat has already been created.  If you are leery of applying chemicals to yourself for that same reason, physical SPF is the way to go.

When the damage is done…

So you got a sunburn, now what? DNA has been damaged, skin cells mutate that can lead to melanoma or other skin cancers if the repair cells escape. If you have an excessive amount of sun exposure your cells can’t fight off the UV rays, they die. Redness, erythema and inflammation are present, yes your skin will heal from a sunburn but simply put there is really no way to reverse the cellular damage. Furthermore our skin then triggers an increase of melanin production and now you are left with brown spots or “sun spots”, or sun induced pigmentation which I see on most every client. As skin therapists we can soothe the skin, reduce the swelling and redness for you. We can even try to communicate to cells to make new healthy cells which can down the road reveal brighter, healthy skin, but the damage from just a single sunburn will remain, if mutated cells escape those are what can lead to skin cancer. I hope I’m scaring you just a little. Okay I admit I’ve totally forgotten my sunscreen and hat before and ended up with some pink shoulders and nose. Every person on earth (I’m sure) is guilty of sun exposure or a sunburn. But to live a healthy lifestyle and keep your skin youthful and healthy, sun protection is the secret! Tell everyone!! OH and don’t forget about your lips  – lots of lip products containing SPF is available too. Sun spots and wrinkles can appear on your lips thanks to old sunny!

But I work inside, I’m pretty much a vampire!

So this entire conversation has been about protecting from outdoor sun exposure. Why is wearing SPF indoors important too? I get it, the idea of being out of direct sun exposure doesn’t seem likely for a sunburn, that’s correct. But, are UV rays still getting inside? Do you have thriving houseplants? Do you have windows or any sunlight in the house? Then yes a small amount is getting in and a small percentage of UV damage is likely. Honestly it’s just good, daily practice to apply it in the morning and be protected if you need to run to the mailbox, or the grocery store or run any errands that require to and from the car. UV rays absolutely penetrate through car windows as well. Ever notice some people having a lot more pigment or sun spots or even lack of skin color on the left side of their arms or face….it’s the driver’s side window and sun hits that area.

Can I use the same SPF for my face and body?

You can. I would get 2 different ones though because most face products are packaged between 1 to 3 oz so that’s not going to last very long if you’re using it on both your face and body. Also, our body can handle a product thicker in consistency over our face as to avoid that greasy feel that some SPF products have.

A wonderful resource and one of my favorite educational sites is skincancer.org

Visit them for much more on the topic and to learn more on skin cancer awareness and how to schedule yourself for a skin exam.