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Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and wearing sunscreen is one of the best ways protect yourself. The FDA regulates all sunscreens, and they must pass multiple tests before being sold to the public, but for them to work as intended, you have to use them correctly.

Why You Need Sunscreen

The ultraviolet or UV rays that come from the sun are a form of radiation. Many people think suntans and sunburns are not a big deal, but they are signs of skin damage.

UV rays can cause lines and wrinkles, thinning of the skin, changes in pigmentation, and, in severe cases, skin cancer.

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What Is SPF?

SPF stands for sun protection factor, and it indicates how well your sunscreen protects your skin again ultraviolet rays, which contribute to the development of skin cancer.

Many people think SPF is how long the sunscreen protects you from the sun, but this is incorrect. No sunscreen blocks all UV rays, but the higher the number, the more effective it is. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 blocks about 93 percent of UV rays, while one with an SPF of 50 blocks about 98 percent.

sunscreen bottle and different spf amounts

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Types of Sunscreen

There are two types of sunscreen. Both are effective, but they work in different ways. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and transform them. Many people are concerned that chemical sunscreens can absorb into the skin, and there are studies that support this concern.

Mineral sunscreens are a great alternative. They work by creating a physical barrier, shielding your skin from UV rays.

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What Sunscreen Is Best?

There are many things to consider when choosing a sunscreen. People with sensitive skin should wear inorganic sunscreens labeled hypoallergenic, while those with dry skin may do better with sun cream.

Lotions are often better for larger areas, like the back, because they are easy to spread. Sprays are popular, especially for kids, but it is often difficult to determine if you are applying enough. Ultimately, though, the best sunscreen is one you will wear. Any protection is better than no protection.

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How Does Sunscreen Work?

Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, and the chemical reaction that takes place excites the molecules, releasing the energy as heat.

Mineral or physical sunscreens work almost like clothing. They reflect and scatter the UV rays so the skin does not absorb them. How effective mineral sunscreens are depends on how reflective they are. Thick coatings of mineral sunscreen with large particles are best, though many people do not like how white they look on the skin.

illustration showing how mineral sunscreen works

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How Much Sunscreen to Apply

To cover the body, adults should use about two tablespoons of sunscreen with an additional teaspoon or so on the face.

After applying sunscreen, wait at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun. Reapply every two hours and after swimming or excessive sweating. Sport and water-resistant sunscreens last a little longer in the water, as long as 80 minutes.

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Broadspectrum Sunscreen

There are two types of UV rays, UVA and UVB. Broadspectrum sunscreen protects against both. UVA rays are longer and have less energy, while UVB rays are shorter, with more energy.

UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and cause tanning, wrinkles, and loss of elasticity. UVB damages the top layers more, leading to sunburn and ultimately skin cancer because they damage the skin's DNA.

illustration showing that UVA rays penetrate deeper into skin than UVB

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Sunburn Remedies

Treat sunburns as soon as possible. Do this by getting indoors, drinking plenty of water to stay hydrated, using over-the-counter creams, and taking tepid baths.

Use moisturizer and resist peeling the dead skin. If you have a sunburn along with blistering, severe pain, vomiting, headache, or fever, seek medical attention.

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Other Ways to Protect Yourself

In addition to sunscreen, there are other ways to protect yourself from sun exposure.

Avoid going outdoors during peak sun hours, seek shade, and wear protective clothing. Wear sunglasses, broad-brimmed hats, and long-sleeved shirts when practical. You can also get sun-protective shirts with tight weaves that protect your skin like sunscreen without any chemicals or having to reapply.

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When to Wear Sunscreen

Most people understand the importance of wearing sunscreen in the summer, but you should really wear sunscreen year-round.

Up to ninety percent of UV light gets through clouds, so you can get sunburned on a cloudy day almost as easily as you can on a clear one. Snow also reflects about 80 percent of UV rays, so you even need protection on snowy winter days.

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Disclaimer

This site offers information designed for educational purposes only. You should not rely on any information on this site as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, treatment, or as a substitute for, professional counseling care, advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you have any concerns or questions about your health, you should always consult with a physician or other healthcare professional.