Is Your Sunscreen Giving You Enough Protection?

July 28, 2011

By Denise Lodge

Sunscreen and ProtectionAs we age, our skin grows thinner and more fragile. The sun weakens the skin’s elasticity, can cause discoloration, form brown spots, or develop cancer. Unfortunately, some sunscreens may not protect your skin adequately. Find out the best types of sunscreen to use, what SPF really means, what ingredients you don’t want in your sunscreen and other forms of sun protection.

Sunshine: The Risks

Often in our culture, tans are considered healthy and attractive. However, a tan is the body’s protective reaction to the sun. When the sun shines on skin, it stimulates skin cells called melanocytes to produce pigment. This pigment helps to prevent ultraviolet (UV) radiation from doing any further damage to skin cells.

Sun Myth #1: A Base Tan Will Help Prevent a Sunburn
One popular myth is that a tan will prevent the skin from being sunburned in the future. However, a tan is only equivalent to a sun protection factor (SPF) of 4 or less.


A sunburn is evidence that living skin cells have been killed by UV rays. The redness is a sign that the body’s immune system is responding to this trauma by increasing blood flow in the damaged area, so that white blood cells can remove the dead skin cells.

Skin Cancer

According to Health Canada, skin cancer accounts for an estimated one-third of all new cases of cancer in Canada. Skin cancer is the uncontrollable growth of abnormal skin cells, which can grow deeper into the skin and invade other organs. Age is a factor for developing skin cancer; because skin cancers take years to develop, they rarely appear before age 30 or 40. There are three main types of skin cancer, basil cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

Choosing the Right Sunscreen

Sun Myth #2: The Higher the SPF, The Better
Sun Protection Factor (SPF) values represent the amount of time someone can be exposed to the sun before getting sunburned. For example, when using SPF 15, individuals who burn in ten minutes without sunscreen can be exposed to the sun for 150 minutes before burning.

In 2007, the FDA proposed a regulation that would prohibit companies from labeling sunscreens with a SPF higher than 50, because using a sunscreen with high SPF can lead individuals to stay in the sun too long without reapplying. Despite the proposal, nearly one in five products now lists SPF values higher than 50, compared to only one in eight in 2009, according to a 2011 report from Environmental Working Group.

UVA and UVB: What’s the Difference?

There are three types of solar radiation that reach the earth’s surface; 48 percent is visible light, 46 percent is infrared light, and a mere six percent is ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The two types of rays that sunscreens protect against are UVA and UVB. The main difference is that UVA is responsible for visible signs of aging, and UVB for burning. UVB rays are hotter than UVA rays, but shorter, penetrating only to the surface of the skin; UVA rays penetrate deeply and damage collagen fibers, which can result in brown spots, premature wrinkles, and cancers.

Sun Myth #3: You Only Need to Wear Sunscreen When It’s Hot
Unlike UVB rays, UVA rays persist year-round, even in winter. Dermatologist Dr. Cynthia Bailey says that UVA radiation “is out all day, all year, wherever you are in the world.”

Recognized age management specialist Dr. Mickey Barber advises that “most sunscreens over SPF 30 will offer good UVB ray protection, but poor UVA protection. Research suggests that the best all-around sunscreens have an SPF around 25 and offer UVA protection (indicated by a new UVA label).”

Types of Sunscreen

There are two main types of sunscreen. The first type is mineral sunscreen, which contains zinc oxide or titanium oxide, (or micronized particles of those minerals). Both zinc oxide and titanium oxide block UV light (all rays), and do not penetrate the skin, but sit on the top layer, bouncing sunlight back to the sky. The second type is chemical sunscreen, which penetrates the skin, and may disrupt the body’s hormonal system.

Whatever type of sunscreen you choose, be sure to apply it every two hours and use enough. Most people apply less than half of the recommended one ounce of sunscreen needed to cover your body.

Avoid Vitamin A

Vitamin A is a common ingredient in skin creams, as it is an antioxidant that slows skin aging. However, when it is applied to the skin in the presence of sunlight, it may speed the development of skin tumours and lesions. Dr. Cybele Fishman recommends applying any beauty products that contain vitamin A at night. To ensure that your sunscreen is vitamin A-free, check the label for vitamin A, retinyl palmitate, or retinol.

Dermatologist Recommended Sunscreens

For her patients, Dr. Cynthia Bailey advises using a sunscreen that contains five percent or more micronized zinc oxide, which feels lighter than non-micronized versions. She recommends oil-free Citrix and water-resistant Solbar sunscreens.

Dermatologist Dr. Cybele Fishman also opts for mineral sunscreens, because they “do not break down in the sun like some chemical sunscreens, and do not cause allergic reactions.” She recommends “MD Solar Sciences lotion SPF 40 for the body and the mineral gel SPF 30 for the face.”

For a non-mineral option, dermatologist Dr. Sherber recommends Anthelios, which is fragrance-free, allergy-tested, offers UVA protection, and is PABA-free. PABA, short for para-aminobenzoic acid, acts as a dye and absorbs UVB rays. It began appearing in sunscreen in the 1970s, but can cause nausea, skin rashes, and irritation.

Don’t Forget Sun Protection for Your Eyes, Lips & Hair

Dr. Kathy Fields, co-Founder of Rodan + Fields Dermatologists and Proactiv® Solution, recommends using SPF products not only for the body, but also for lips, face, and hair.


Health Canada advises that routine exposure to blue light, which is present in the glare of sunlight reflecting off sand, snow, or water, may age the retina, and increase the risk of blindness in some people over the age of 60.

In addition, too much UV radiation can damage the front portion of the eyes, and can cause photokeratitis, the painful but reversible sunburn of the cornea, which can result in temporary vision loss.

Surprisingly, skin cancers of the eyelid account for five to ten percent of skin cancers, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Commonly, people avoid applying sunscreen to the eyelid because of irritation so wearing UVA- and UVB-blocking sunglasses “is an important way to prevent cataracts and skin cancers in areas around the eye,” according to dermatologists Dr. Emily Tierney and Dr. C. William Hanke.


Dr. Fields reminds individuals with thinning hair “to apply sunblock to protect exposed areas of their scalp.” Moreover, she says that “hair products containing SPF are a great option for people who dye their hair, because it will help the colour last longer.”

The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which is the same time when the top of the head directly faces the sun. Spray-on sunscreens can coat the scalp between hairs and reach down to the base of the hair shaft better than a cream can.


Lips are sensitive, and have thinner skin than the rest of the face. If your balm, gloss, or stick does not contain SPF, one option is to apply a SPF product before applying the original product. Badger Balm is one SPF product that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, is made with zinc oxide, and is unscented.

Other Forms of Sun Protection

Sunscreen is not the only way to decrease sun exposure. Other options include:

  • Staying out of the sun during peak hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.)
  • Staying in the shade
  • Wearing longer clothing
  • Wearing darker colours, and choosing fabric with a tighter weave to block more UV rays
  • Using an umbrella (but be aware that UV rays can still bounce off sand or water, and reach underneath the umbrella)

It is possible to be sun safe without having to hide indoors. Choosing sunscreens with appropriate SPF and UVA/UVB protection, covering areas often overlooked, and wearing sunscreen year-round are all proactive measures towards healthy sun safety.

About The Author Denise Lodge has a Bachelor of Arts, Honours degree in Professional Writing. She enjoys reading, writing, and travelling.

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