Guide to Sunscreen

We all use sunscreen in the summer to protect ourselves from the sun, but it can be difficult to understand the difference between various sunscreens. What does it mean for them to have extra vitamins and what does SPF stand for? Unlocking the secrets behind what is on the label will help you make the best sunscreen purchase with your Flexible Spending Account.

What Does SPF Stand for?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and the number corresponds to theoretical amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned. The lowest number you’ll probably see for a decent sunscreen is SPF 15, which increases the amount of time you can stay out in the sun by a factor of 15.

In practice though, a lot of factors can influence and decrease the amount of time. For example, if you’re at the beach or working out, fluids like ocean water and sweat can wash off the sunscreen and leave you exposed. Invest in waterproof sunscreen if you plan to go into water or engage in rigorous exercise. Applying sunscreen unevenly or not reapplying frequently enough can also leave you at risk for overexposure. People with fairer skin or a history of skin cancer in the family may be at higher risk.

How much of a difference does a higher SPF sunscreen do?

An SPF 30 sunscreen isn’t twice as good as an SPF 15 sunscreen. An SPF 15 product blocks about 94% of UVB rays; an SPF 30 product blocks 97% of UVB rays; and an SPF 45 product blocks about 98% of rays. Thus, sunscreens with higher SPF ratings block slightly more UVB rays, but none offers 100% protection.

What Does it Mean When a Sunscreen is Waterproof?

No sunscreen is completely waterproof or water-resistant, but the FDA considers a product "water-resistant" if it maintains its SPF level after 40 minutes of water exposure. A product is considered "waterproof" if it maintains its SPF level following 80 minutes of exposure to water. These sunscreens typically have a rich base of plant oils and beeswax which are naturally water resistant.

What are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and why are they in my sunscreens?

The ultraviolet rays given off by the sun are separated into two types: UVA and UVB. Regular sunscreens and the SPF amount you see only accounts for UVB rays which are known to cause sunburns. Additional ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide protect a person against UVA rays which cause deeper skin damage. Unlike UVB’s SPF though, there is no measurement for how effective these ingredients are at protecting you against UVA rays.

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