Last week, after a long day of walking from class-to-class on my large college campus, I finally made it to my air-conditioned apartment complex and found my friend waiting by the elevator. Suddenly aware of my large sweat stains, I laughed and passed a comment about how “it’s so hot that I probably sweat my sunscreen off!” My friend laughed and talked about how she didn’t really wear sunscreen. This got me thinking about how wearing sunscreen is not something that is seriously emphasized, often only mentioned in passing remarks, especially for college students walking in the heat.
The Science-y Stuff: How does sunscreen help me anyway?
You’ve probably heard of UV Rays — the electromagnetic radiation that comes from the sun and tanning beds. There are actually two types of them: UV-A and UV-B, both of which cause sunburns and potentially, skin cancer. UV-A has a longer wavelength and is not absorbed by the ozone layer, so it penetrates deeply into our skin directly! This leads to skin aging, wrinkles and a weakened immune system (it’s basically making you look old and attacking your bodyguard). UV-B is partially blocked by the ozone layer, but is more responsible for burning your top layer of skin (the red, blotchy, painful sunburn!) These are the two types of radiation that sunscreen protects us from by combining inorganic ingredients that reflect the rays, and organic ingredients that absorb the rays and turn them into heat. The SPF number you see on sunscreen bottles show you how well the formula protects from the UV-B rays, while sunscreen bottles labeled “broad-spectrum protection” are the ones that help with UV-A protection.
So, what are some common misconceptions people have about wearing sunscreen?
- Sunscreen is only necessary for when most of my body is exposed to sunlight like when I’m tanning or swimming.
- I don’t need to wear sunscreen when it’s cloudy or cold outside because there isn’t much sunlight out!
- I need vitamin D, and sunscreen will prevent me from getting my daily dose of sunshine.
- The darker my skin-pigment, the less I need sunscreen because melanin protects me from getting sunburnt.
- My makeup products have spf in it, so that’s enough to protect my face from the sun.
- It is better to wear sunscreen than cover my skin with my clothes.
- My sunscreen is water-proof, the commercial said so!
What’s the truth?!
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US, with women having the greatest increase in cases. Before the age of 50, women are two times more likely to get skin cancer than men.
The UV rays will come into contact with you when you least expect it — through car windows, through water, and even through your clothes! You need to wear sunscreen when you are going on a long drive and walking to class, not just when you are out tanning at the beach. Also, having darker-toned skin does not mean that you are protected! UV rays cause skin cells to release pigment, which is harder to see on darker skin tones. Melanin may somewhat diffuse UV-B rays, but that does not protect from skin cancer or the long hours spent in the sun. Also, UV-A rays can still cause wrinkles and aging-skin for those who do not wear sunscreen, regardless of your skin tone.
Sunscreen does not prevent you from having your daily dose of Vitamin D. Sunlight can go through clothes, and you only need about 5-15 minutes of sunshine a day for the appropriate amount of Vitamin D that you need. Therefore, when your sunscreen starts wearing off, before you go reapply it (which we will discuss later) you will get those essential amounts of sun-time.
Makeup is only a tiny layer of protection against the harmful effects of UV rays. The small amount of SPF in the drop-size amount of color- correcting cream you use will not provide as much protection as sunscreen. In addition to sunscreen, long brim hats and light covering-clothing are an extremely helpful extra layer of protection against these rays.
Sunscreen is never 100% waterproof (if it was, how would you wash it off?). When you are swimming, UV rays can still get to your skin even if you’re in water. The rays can also reflect off of the water onto any areas of skin that are not submerged in water.
Tip: When you go for a swim, reapply the sunscreen afterwards, and let it absorb into your skin for about 10-15 minutes before jumping back in!
So if water can’t protect you from UV rays … neither can water vapor aka clouds! No matter how cloudy or cold it is, the sun rays are still there. Just because you can’t see them doesn’t mean they can’t see you.
AH! This is kind of scary, what do I do?
- Apply sunscreen (Forbes says a shot-glass full) 15-30 minutes before going out, and reapply (no matter how high the SPF, how cloudy the sky, or what skin-tone you are) every two hours to the best of your ability!
- Apply sunscreen and/or try to cover as much of your body that may be exposed to the sun as you can — yes, even your feet with the sandal tan lines.
- Put a little bottle in your backpack or purse and set a reminder on your phone to help you remember to apply sunscreen throughout the day. .
- Try to find a full/broad-spectrum sunscreen to protect your skin from a large range of UV light (since you now know about UV-A and UV-B!).
- Since sunlight can still get to covered areas, if you find a suspicious looking spot somewhere you are not sure about, seek professional medical help!
Finally, tell your friends! You do not have to give them a long, drawn-out explanation, but make sure they know the importance of sunscreen in their daily lives. You may be out here shining brighter than the sun and all, but that does not mean you don’t need to protect your beautiful skin.