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15, 30, 50, 70… What SPF Should I Use?

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Seems like you need a PhD in SPF these days to understand what’s on the label of most sunscreens. And believe you me, you want to make sure you have the right sunscreen slathered on your body before you hit the beach!

Non-melanoma skin cancer is now the most common type of cancer in America. More than 3.5 million cases are reported annually… and that’s just the reported cases. Many patients are treated in the doctor’s office and a good number of those aren’t included in the count. That’s why the Archives of Dermatology recently called non-melanoma skin cancer an “under-recognized epidemic” in the U.S.

Of course, the number one way to prevent skin cancer is to stay out of the sun (especially during peak sun hours) or cover yourself from head to toe even in 90 degree weather! But how many people can do that? Enter sunscreen. The right kind not only blocks dangerous rays, but also helps block the anti-aging effects of the sun (think fewer wrinkles!). But, it’s critical to use the right level of protection.

There are products on the shelves with SPFs ranging from zero to 70 now-a-days. Do you have any idea what the numbers really mean?

How much more protection does a 30 SPF offer than a 15? If you guessed twice as much, you’re wrong. An SPF of 15 screens 93 percent of UVB rays, while a 30 screens 97 — just four percent more. “UVB protection does not increase proportionally with the SPF number,” says Dr. Elizabeth Hale of the Skin Cancer Foundation. There’s a large jump between an SPF of 2, which protects against 50 percent of UVB rays, and 15, but after that the increments are small.

Leading dermatologists say a 15 should do the trick day-to-day for most people.

“This would be for casual wear, you’re going to and from your car, you’re putting out the garbage, you’re picking up the kids at the bus stop, says Dr. Zoe Draelos. If you’re going to be outside for a prolonged period of time, experts recommend an SPF 30 minimum. You’ve also got to use the right amount of sunscreen or else the effective SPF might be far less than what’s on the bottle.

How much sunscreen should you use?

You’ve probably heard people say use an amount the size of a quarter. Wrong! You’re supposed to use a shot glass full of sunscreen on all exposed areas to get the full benefit.

And here’s something else you probably don’t know. SPF only refers to UVB rays. There is no ratings scale for UVA protection. So look for the words “Broad Spectrum” on the label and specific ingredients according to “The most important is avobenzone and two other ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.”

If you’re sensitive to the sun, are taking medications that make you more sensitive to the sun or have had skin cancer in the past, dermatologist recommend you use an SPF 50.

Another tip: Don’t forget the UV-blocking sunglasses!

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