Though many people are aware of the importance of wearing sunscreen when going outdoors for a long period of time, most are unaware or uneducated about how sunscreen actually works, what it protects against, and what the difference is between various brands and protection ratings.
Protection Levels - SPF and More
The most common rating system for sunscreens in the United States is the sunburn protection factor or SPF system. SPF is a measure of how well a particular sunscreen can prevent a person from getting sunburned. Theoretically, an SPF number indicates how many times more radiation a person's skin can sustain with sunscreen than without. For example, a sunscreen rated SPF 15 would allow a person to stay in the sun 15 times as long without being burned.
Of course, in practice, a host of other factors can influence the effectiveness of virtually any sunscreen. Skin absorption or contact with water, for example, can essentially remove sunscreen from the skin surface, reducing its effectiveness over time.
SPF ratings also fail to take into account the fact that there are two types of harmful ultraviolet rays from the sun - UVA and UVB. While UVB rays are known to cause sunburn and increase the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and basal cell carcinoma (BCC), two common types of skin cancer, UVA rays cause tanning, and may cause the DNA damage which leads to malignant melanoma, a rarer, but far more deadly form of skin cancer. The bad news? While most sunscreens provide significant amounts of protection against UVB rays, a large majority provide little or no protection against UVA rays. Furthermore, since SPF is measured against the occurrence of sunburn, it gives no information on how effectively a product works in the UVA spectrum.
Possible Risks of Sunscreen
According to several studies, while sunscreen is undoubtedly able to prevent sunburns and SCC/BCC skin cancers, it appears to actually increase the risk of developing malignant melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, which accounts for nearly three-fourths of all skin cancer-related deaths. Several reasons for this have been suggested, ranging from irresponsible consumer usage (i. e. , mistaking SPF protection for UVA protection) to absorption of potentially harmful chemical components.
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