We’re heading into summer again soon, and I just realized something: I have no idea what the numbers mean on a bottle of sunscreen. I figure there are a few possibilities. First, does it indicate the percentage of radiation deflected off your skin? Does it indicate how many minutes it lasts after applied? Does it take that number times longer to burn? What does SPF 30 mean, and why do some countries not bother going any higher? In the United States, you can find SPF 100 — what is that, and why don’t sunscreens in Europe go that high?

I have just taken it for granted that we all need to be using sunscreen, regardless of how dark our complexions are; however, I have also taken for granted that I understand how to choose a product. But I also heard that regular clothes already provide SPF 15. Is that enough? What is the best range anyway? What are the best ways to protect skin when out and about? Also, why did I get sunburned at the beach in December on a cold, cloudy day?

What the SPF Rating Means

First off, a high number does not automatically mean “better” protection from the sun’s UVA and UVB rays (the energy wavelengths that damage skin). They are invisible to our eyes. Regardless of a cloudy or sunny day, they are present and it’s important to understand that the brightness of the daylight is not an indicator of how much exposure you may be receiving from radiation.

According to SkinCancer.org (bit.ly/3x5o08Y), “The SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed versus the amount of time without any sunscreen. So ideally, with SPF 30 it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen.” That might sound like a long time; however, it might take your skin only a couple minutes to begin to burn. With that in mind, regardless of how high the SPF rating is, keep in mind that 30, 50 or 100 times that duration still isn’t necessarily all that long.

And that is the problem with higher SPF ratings. They lull people into a false sense of safety. The product that is SPF 50 lets slightly less UV radiation hit your skin, but it isn’t zero. People tend to think SPF 100 means that it blocks 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation. That isn’t true. One of the reasons SPF products in other countries tend to max out at 30 is because anything beyond that is excessive. You need to reapply product with enough frequency that the higher SPF rating doesn’t matter. If you use a product as described, you shouldn’t be getting to the end of the product’s protection in the first place, so the fact a product has a higher SPF should be irrelevant — assuming you are using the product as directed.

Again, SkinCancer.org: “The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for any extended outdoor activity. Regardless of the SPF, though, it’s important to apply one ounce (two tablespoons) 30 minutes before going outside and reapply it every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating.”

The Ideal Products

According to the Environmental Working Group (bit.ly/3gd3psA), it is best to choose options offering SPF 15 – SPF 50. There are also other important factors to consider:

  • Choose creams, not sprays — sprays create droplets that are often unsafe to breathe
  • Avoid products that contain Vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate or retinol — studies find that it encourages the growth of tumors
  • Avoid oxybenzone, which acts like estrogen and can upset your hormonal balances
  • Look instead for options that include zinc oxide, three percent avobenzone or Mexoryl SX — these add protection against UVA damage

When is the Sun Strongest?

I always grew up hearing that it’s best to avoid being in the sun from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.. Is that correct? What do scientists suggest in 2021? They are now saying that it’s best to avoid overexposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (bit.ly/2TF83rs), “The UV radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface is mostly UVA and some UVB. Almost half the daytime total of the more harmful UVB radiation is received between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Even on a cloudy day, you can be sunburned by UVB radiation.”

What are Sources of SPF Protection Aside from Creams and Sprays?

Staying in the shadow of a tree, awning or umbrella will offer mixed results. Although they may protect you from direct exposure, they will do little to protect you from the radiation that is reflecting off the surfaces around you. Definitely look for shade, as it does offer some protection, but do not look to it to replace sunscreen.

The protection from clothes runs the gamut for obvious reasons. The coverage of the clothing, the material itself, and the colors of the fabrics all matter. Also, light clothing that is wet offers practically no protection at all. According to SkinCare.org (bit.ly/2TF8diy), “A white T-shirt provides only moderate sun protection, with a UPF of about 7. When that T-shirt gets wet, it provides a UPF of only 3! A dark, long-sleeved denim shirt can provide a UPF of about 1,700; in essence, complete sun protection.” This explains why the inhabitants of deserts often wear dark clothing, despite black material absorbing more heat energy than white fabric.

Some foods can help add protection within the skin itself, but they do not replace sunscreen. Consider eating foods high in Vitamin C like strawberries, tomatoes, watermelon, black berries, guava and kiwi. Carrots, sweet potatoes and potatoes contain beta-carotene, which protects the skin. Oatmeal and cucumbers replenish collagen. Green tea, blue berries, dark chocolate, vinegar and pomegranate contain antioxidants that help to heal and reverse sun damage.

A note about Vitamin C: Remember to never, never, never expose your skin to sunlight after applying products that contain citrus. Remember what lemon juice does to hair? Yes, well it also does that to skin. Do not expose yourself to sunlight after using lemon, lime, orange, neroli, grapefruit and other citrus skin care regimens. This is especially important to remember with essential oils, which are very concentrated.

Jack Kirven completed the MFA in Dance at UCLA, and earned certification as a personal trainer through NASM. His wellness philosophy is founded upon integrated lifestyles as opposed to isolated workouts. Visit him at jackkirven.com and INTEGRE8Twellness.com.