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Sunscreen 101

You want the best sunblock for your kids but there are so many out there and who has time to research the best kinds and proper SPF and whether the drugstore brands are really that bad?

Here's the skinny:

The Deal with SPF

SPF is basically a way to guess how well a sunscreen is going to protect you. We're all familiar with it but can never remember exactly what it measures.

So the deal is that SPF ("Sun Protection Factor") is literally a "factor"- it's the number used to calculate how long a sunscreen will (hypothetically) protect you.

You times the amount of time you can be in the sun without burning (e.g. 10 mins) and multiple it by the SPF.

Minutes to burn without sunscreen x SPF number = maximum sun exposure time

So let’s say you’d normally burn after 10 minutes - an SPF of 15 means you can be in the sun 10 mins x 15 which is 150 mins (2 and 1/2 hrs).

But there are catches.

The first catch is that it ONLY tells you about protection from UVB rays (more on that later)

The second catch is that protection from SPF doesn’t go up the way you think it does. For example, it seems like SPF 30 would give you twice the protection of SPF 15, right? And SPF 50 would be amazing?

But here's how it actually increases:

  • SPF 15 blocks 93% of incoming UVB rays. Dermatologists say this level is fine for the majority of people.
  • SPF 30 blocks 97% of incoming UVB rays (only 4% more!). Docs recommend this level for people with fair skin or a family history of skin cancer.
  • SPF 50 blocks 98% of incoming UVB rays (only 1% more!). Should you really pay more for this?!

Also, this is a such a rough way to estimate the amount of protection ... there are so many other factors!

For example:

  1. News flash: everyone has different types of skin. That means we all burn at different rates. So the amount of time you actually get from your sunscreen can vary widely.
  2. The sun is more intense at different times of day, different months, etc. And your SPF doesn't know if it's April or July.
  3. Everyone applies sunscreen differently and the average person under-estimates what they need (i.e. they use ¼ to ½ the amount required). But not me, of course.

So why have products with high SPF's? Well, big companies have learned that if they make higher SPF products, they can charge more for them, regardless if they make much of a difference or not.

It's actually gotten so bad that governments are now stepping in, saying that high SPFs are “inherently misleading” and looking at capping the level that can be advertised. For example, the Australian government is capping values at SPF 30 (i.e.anything higher has to be labelled “30+”).

Not only do high SPF sunscreens mislead us re: the amount of protection we're getting, they can lead to a false sense of security. Because people using a higher SPF sunscreen stay in the sun longer and reapply less often. (Because I'm wearing SPF 50 and it will protect me foreva!)

And if you're using a chemical sunscreen, the higher the SPF, the greater the chemicals to achieve that level of protection. So a chemical sunscreen with SPF 50 has way more chemicals that SPF 15. Oops.

And being in the sun longer, even without burning, is baddddd because it means higher doses of UVA radiation and, tip: UVA=bad. See below.

 

Absorption

Where we got confused was that a higher SPF means you're protected longer but the level of UVB absorbtion doesn't increase the same way.

For example, an SPF of 15 absorbs 93% of UVB rays, but an SPF of 30 absorbs 97%. The SPF number has doubled, but the absorption rate has increased by only 4%.

Because it's so confusing , the FDA in the US proposed a cap on SPF numbers. Any sunscreen higher than 30 SPF would be a "30-plus." Thirty is the cap because above that, the overall protection of your skin increases only slightly, but people may misinterpret these higher SPF numbers as a much higher level of protection.


UVA vs UVB

Let's pause for a sec to talk about the UVB and UVA, because we can never remember the difference.

  1. UVB causes short-term stuff like sunburns. UVB rays are bad since they can cause damage to your skin, including short-term effects (e.g. sunburn) and long-term serious stuff (e.g. non-melanoma skin cancer). Tip: the "B" in UVB stands for "burns").
  2. UVA gets in deeper and causes skin aging (wrinkles, sagging, etc). They also make the cancer-causing effects of UVB rays worse (boo!) and can cause melanoma skin cancer (tip: that's the bad kind). Tip: the "A" in UVA stands for "aging".

Not only that, UVA damage doesn’t cause a reaction you can see (e.g. sunburn). At least with UVB damage, you start to notice when you've had to much! So in a way, you're more at risk from UVA because you don't have that reminder.

There are really only two UVA-blocking chemicals available in Canada -- avobenzone, a chemical filter; and zinc oxide, a physical block.

So it's kind of weird that there isn't a measure for UVA, right?!


Sunscreen 101: Chemical vs Physical Sunblock

Sunscreens basically work by blocking the amount of UV rays that get through to the deeper layers of your skin. They contain ingredients that act as barriers, either by absorbing (chemical filters) or reflecting (physical blockers) the UV rays.

Otherwise they get absorbed by our DNA and bad things happen.

The most common sunscreens on the market use chemical filters. The problem is, they sink into the skin and can "pose health risks" (i.e. have been linked to tissue damage and hormone disruption). Look for ingredients like Avobenzone or Oxybenzone on these.

Mineral sunscreens on the other hand, use physical filters that sit on top of the skin and reflect the rays. Ingredients usually contain zinc oxide (i.e. the white stuff you see on a lifeguard's nose).

They have a number of advantages:

  1. They can be used on babies. Doctors recommend that mineral sunscreens not be used on children under 6 months, since their skin is so sensitive but since mineral sunscreens only sit on top of the skin, they can be used. This also makes them better for those with sensitive skin or allergies. Or people who don't want chemicals disrupting their hormones.
  2. They are effective immediately. Chemical sunscreens take 20 min to activate (but does anyone really wait 20 mins after they've applied?!).
  3. Many natural brands (eg Substance) contain all kinds of awesome skin-friendly ingredients, like essential oils and calendula.

The problem with that is that no one wants the whiteness of pure zinc oxide. So they’ve now figured out to make it with micro particles that disappear when you rub it in (some brands more than others).

Because of this, we recommend sunscreens that:

  1. Block both UVA and UVB radiation (“multi spectrum"). Have we scared you enough?
  2. Have an SPF between 15-50. Personally, we use SPF 30 and sleep well at night.
  3. Provide protection using a physical vs chemical block, which means they don't have harmful chemicals (i.e. rate 1 or 2 on the EWG Sunscreen List).

 

The bottom line is that a sunscreen with a higher SPF does offer higher protection against UVB rays, but once you get past SPF 30, the protection doesn't increase dramatically, and the higher number may give you a false sense of protection.

Instead of letting SPF be your only guide to sun protection, avoid a burn by following a few simple sunscreen rules.

  1. Stay: Stay out of the sun as much as possible,

Total Coverage: UVA and UVB


Three S's:

Now that we've established that SPF just isn't what you thought it was, here's what really matters. Think of it like the three R’s of recycling (Yes, I just made this up).

  1. Stay: Stay out of the sun during the hottest part of the day. We've all read this and it's not always possible if it's Canada Day and you're at a friend's house but it's a good rule to start with.
  2. Shirt: Fabric beats sunscreen every time. If you’re going to be out, make sure everyone is wearing a good sun hat (eg full coverage, has SPF rating) and if the kids are wearing bathing suits, a good UV shirt or suit (eg lightweight, breathable, SPF rating).
  3. Sunblock: If there’s still exposed skin, use an SPF of between 15-30 and make sure to spread it on thickly enough -- about one oz (basically a shot glass size) to cover your body. Knowing your skin type is also a good way to figure out which SPF to use. There are six different skin types outlined by the Health Protection Agency which go from lightest to darkest.

 

-spread thicky

-know your skin type

-know your family history. If members of your family have had skin cancer, you'll be more susceptible and should use a higher SPF.

-Reapply often: we've all heard this but how are we supposed when it's time?

Also, heads-up, certain medications (e.g. antibiotics) can make you more susceptible to sun burns. So you may want to have a look at the possible side effects of any medication you’re taking - if you’re taking any of these drugs, you should use a higher SPF.

The Future of Sunscreens

Because even the highest SPF sunscreens don't block 100 percent of UV rays, manufacturers are now starting to add antioxidants (e.g. vitamin E, vitamin C) as a second line of defense for when the skin's natural antioxidant defenses are overloaded.


Want Recommendations?

Since you asked, our favorites are:

  • ThinkBaby: Our #1 bestseller, ThinkBaby has taken over the market with their perfect mix of zinc oxide sunblock that rubs in completely. Serious bonus points for the creamsicle smell, btw. It has 20% Zinc Oxide and is free of all the harmful stuff. It has the highest level of water resistance (80 minutes). Also comes in a handy sunblock stick (great for diaper bag or purse) and a tinted Face option that doubles as a light foundation (who has time for both?). EWG rating: 1 (aka "All Good")
  • Substance Sun Creme: Made in Toronto, this awesome sunblock is falso full of all the good stuff and none of the bad. The natural essential oils are awesome and they also have an unscented version as well. Goes on thickly but rubs in pretty well. Not a bad feature when covering kids as it shows you the missed spots. Also has a handy stick version. EWG rating: 1 (aka "All Good")
  • Green Beaver: This is an awesome Canadian brand that is legitimately hardcore about being natural. Their sunblocks are great: they rub in easily and aren't greasy, oily or sticky. They're also the only ones with a non-aerosol zinc-oxide sunscreen spray (that sprays properly). Tip: Sprays are great for squirmy kids and hairy legs. EWG rating: 1 (aka "All Good")