Sunscreen 101: Everything You Need to Know

After months of Vitamin D deprivation, our seasonally affected psyches aren’t the only thing longing for a little summer loving. But before you shed the layers and start basking in the glow, we want to make sure you’re covered (literally).


After months of Vitamin D deprivation, our seasonally affected psyches aren’t the only thing longing for a little summer loving. But before you shed the layers and start basking in the glow, we want to make sure you’re covered (literally). We know how the temptation to start adding a healthful looking hue to your skin ASAP (Active Summer Assault on Pastiness) pervades your frontal lobe, erasing everything you thought you knew about your UVA, B and C’s. To keep you from flash frying to a shade between John Boehner and Gene Hackman’s nose on a whiskey weekend, we’ve put together this comprehensive collection of knowledge to keep you safe in the sun and prevent your future-face from looking like a catcher’s mitt. Trust us, slathering SPF sauce all over yourself is a good thing — and so is being the guy who has some handy when the women’s beach volleyball team asks you to help hit those hard-to-reach areas. Hey, it could happen. It’s best to be prepared.

50 Articles, 150 Gear Essentials, 1 Trek Across Cuba: Your Guide to Making Summer 2013 The Best Ever »

IT PUTS THE LOTION ON ITS SKIN: Kiehls Facial Fuel | Scape Athlete Sunblock | Kinesys SPF 30+ Sunscreen

First thing’s first: There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. That sun-kissed bronze skin that typified a healthy glow throughout previous generations is actually the first sign of damage. Change in skin color is actually our body’s imperfect attempt to protect itself from the sun’s UV rays. This protective darkening causes cumulative damage to our skin’s DNA, and worse, has been linked to skin cancer.

While the UV spectrum only accounts for about 10% of the sun’s energy, it’s this form of radiation that wreaks the most havoc on our health. In fact, in April of 2011 the World Health Organization concluded that all categories and wavelengths of UV radiation be considered a group 1 carcinogen, the highest level of cancer-causing agents in humans. Cloaked by the stealth of short wavelengths (making them invisible to the naked eye), these members of the electromagnetic light family can be subdivided into three main types: UVA, UVB and UVC.



50 – Percentage of UVB radiation absorbed by SPF2 sunscreen
17 – Number of ingredients approved by the FDA for use in sunscreen
99.9 – % of UV radiation blocked by UV-protective window tint while letting in 80% of visible light
12 – Times more intense tanning salon lights are than natural UVA radiation
75 – % increase of melanoma risk by using tanning beds during your youth
250,000 – Number of Americans affected by Non-Melanoma Skin Cancers annually
8,000 – Number of Americans killed by Melanoma annually
4 – Percentage increase in UV strength for every 1,000-foot increase in altitude
5 – Number of years it takes for skin to fully recover from sunburn

UVA rays make up the majority (95 percent) of the ultraviolet light we are exposed to, and actually penetrate our skin down to the subcutaneous layer. These rays are the reason why you were busted for sneaking in a round of 18 instead of being home sick; they are also the form of radiation at work in those bath tubs of bacteria at your local tanning salon. Although less intense than UVB rays, their deeper penetration and prevalence combine to make them the primary cause of that wrinkled leather look so popular in South Beach. More alarmingly, UVA radiation has also been linked to skin damages that originate in the basal and squamous cells, which — though they have funny names — may be the driving force behind the primary cause of most skin cancers.

Where UVA starts the fire, UVB brings on the burn: confined to our skin’s outer layer, UVB rays lay waste to paste by reddening and burning the epidermis in little to no time. Aside from what we usually play off as a little pain and discomfort, that UVB-fed fire is a known contributor to premature aging and a myriad of skin cancers including melanoma. As we roll into spring and summer, the levels of UVB radiation we’re exposed to increases with our longer, hotter days, making protective measures that much more important. Both UVA and UVB rays are also the main culprits in causing eye damage (cataracts); they even contribute to the suppression of our immune system, making the damage they create even more detrimental to our overall health.

Slathering SPF sauce all over yourself is a good thing. So is being the guy who has some handy when the women’s beach volleyball team asks you to help hit those hard-to-reach areas.

Due to its extremely short wavelength, most UVC radiation is absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer. This is a good thing. The most powerful and dangerous form of ultraviolet light, UVC has been found to be extremely carcinogenic and even mutagenic to humans (and we’re not talking cool mutations like becoming a turtle who can master Kung Fu, either). Its power to eradicate cellular structures, however, has proven useful. Manmade UVC light (much less intense than the sun’s) is currently employed quite effectively for disinfection purposes in various food, water and laboratory settings, ironically making it a valuable ally in cancer research and treatment environments.

To fully appreciate the damaging power of the sun’s UV rays, understand that after atmospheric filtration, we only have to deal with about 3% of their initial intensity. Sunblock and (more importantly) sunscreen are both excellent at dealing with that final three percent, but with so many options on the market making the right choice can be somewhat daunting.


Sunscreen blocks vitamin D. No, sunscreens do not prevent the body from absorbing vitamin D.

You don’t need sunscreen if you are dark skinned or tan easily. Lies! the damaging effects of UV rays affect everybody. A “base tan” is not a form of protection.

SPF30 is twice as powerful as SPF15. No, SPF15 absorbs 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF30 absorbs 97 percent.

All sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays. False. Only broad spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA damage. SPF ratings only apply to UVB protection.

Sunscreen isn’t needed on cloudy days. Prepare to be lobstered. 80 percent of the sun’s rays pass through cloud cover. UV rays will reflect off of water, sand, snow and other surfaces, so burning in the shade is possible.

Water resistant sunscreen provides all day protection. No, you buffoon. Water-resistant sunscreen provides approximately 40 minutes of wet protection; waterproof sunscreen is good for about 80 minutes.

Now, to understand the terms: where sunblock creates an actual physical barrier between your skin and the sun (think ultraviolet protective clothing, tinted glass, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or hiding behind larger people), sunscreen provides an invisible UV-absorbing film. Normal sunscreens protect solely against the burn of UVB rays, while broad spectrum sunscreen goes the extra mile and covers both UVA and UVB radiation. Their combination of chemical and physical ingredients acts to absorb and reflect UV radiation (while still letting Vitamin D through) for a predetermined amount of time, which is reflected in the SPF (Sun Protection Factor) value. SPF is a reflection of the amount of time before major damage in the form of a burn will take place. A SPF of 15 designates that it will take fifteen times longer to burn (compared to unprotected skin) while a SPF 30 will double that time. Interestingly enough, while the higher SPF number will buy you longer stints before needing to reapply, the differences in their protective qualities are very similar: where a SPF 15 absorbs 93% of harmful UV rays, a SPF30 absorbs only slightly more at 97%, making you wonder whether it’s worth it to plunk down on the SPF90.

Hunkering down and hiding indoors may seem like the easiest answer to saving your skin, but nobody wants to do that, especially after the winter we’ve had. Fortunately there are a multitude of protective measures easily and readily available. Look for a bottle with a minimum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15. That bottle of coconut oil left over from last year’s trip to Cabo won’t cut it, stud. Splurge for a water-resistant version to guard against sweating, and make sure you apply at least one ounce every two hours. If you find yourself running on empty, head for the shade of your nearest patio umbrella, order a cold beer and contemplate why you ever thought baking in the sun was a good idea to begin with. Did you really want to look like a member of the Jersey Shore?

3 Everyday Sunsblocks We Like


Jack Black Performance Remedy Oil-Free Sun Guard Water Resistant SPF 45Neutrogena Ultimate Sport Spray Broad Spectrum SPF100Banana Boat Natural Reflect Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

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