Settling the score on sunscreen myths

"I know the most powerful sunscreen to buy…"

"I use it whenever I go to the beach…"

"I used the same sunscreen on my husband and baby…"

As a site dedicated to offering the widest selection of FSA-eligible products, we naturally get a lot of questions about the sunscreen we sell. And we also hear a lot of differing opinions about the right and wrong ways to use it.

It's summer. There's a good chance you're planning to spend some time in the sun over the next few months. You're going to need sunscreen -- and you really need to be sure you're choosing the right kind.

The good thing is that proper sunscreen use doesn't have to be a confusing. Let's dispel a few suncare myths and misconceptions before getting down to choosing the right sunscreen for you and your family.

The sun isn't that dangerous

Yeah, we started with a silly one. But there are some people who genuinely believe the sun's rays are harmless, and that a steady suntan is good for long-term skin health.

The sun's ultraviolet (UV) light is actually made up of two different types: UVA and UVB. The Skin Cancer Foundation defines them the following ways:

  • UVA rays cause skin damage that leads to tanning as well as skin aging and wrinkles. The shortest wavelengths of UVA rays also contribute to sunburn.
  • UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in developing skin cancer. A sunscreen's SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides.

Sure, that tan looks great on you. But before you lay out for an extended tanning session, think about what's causing that tan, and take the right measures to stay safe.

Higher SPF = better sunscreen

SPF is a measurement of how long the sun's UV rays will take to impact your skin when using sunscreen, as compared to not using any at all. Though it's not a perfect science (slathering an unmeasured amount of lotion out of a tube makes it a little hard to gauge) following some general rules should help keep you safe this summer.

An SPF 2 sunscreen really only helps to protect your skin against 50% of harmful rays. A lot of tanning enthusiasts use these products, and using them is certainly better than nothing at all. But there are just too many sunscreens available that do more to make us want to take the risk.

(Plus, sunscreen is only FSA-eligible if it has an SPF of 15 or higher, so there's that…)

However, there's just as much confusion about the highest SPF sunscreens. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, once you're at SPF 15 with broad spectrum protection, you're blocking approximately 93% of the sun's harmful rays. SPF 30 is good for approximately 96-97%, and so forth. But even if you put on an SPF 90, which blocks roughly 99% of those damaging rays, there is no such thing as "complete" protection from extended sun exposure.

And using a higher SPF doesn't necessarily mean you have a hall pass to stay in the sun that much longer. Between water, sand, sweat and towels, there's no guarantee the areas you covered earlier are still protected.

Don't get us wrong - when used properly, today's sunscreens are fantastic, with proven protection and water resistance to help ease your mind while enjoying your time outdoors. The best course of action is to reapply sunscreen early and often, especially if you plan a lengthy day in the sun. But be sure to spend some time in the shade, or at least covered up whenever possible.

You only need sunscreen at the beach or pool

This is a big mistake. Unless you plan on covering yourself in long sleeves and ski masks all summer, you're probably going to be outdoors. Which means you're exposed to the sun. Even on quick trips to the store, those summer rays can still get to you, so get ahead of them by having sunscreen with you wherever you go, reapplying every few hours to be sure.

Even though this article is all about safe summer fun, the sun doesn't pay much attention to the thermometer. UVA and UVB rays can harm your skin year round, and even find their way to you through cloudy days, and while reflecting off of snow! In other words, if you're planning to escape the heat with a trip to the southern hemisphere, still be sure to have sunscreen at the ready.

All sunscreens are alike

You might think adding adult sunscreen to a child's skin is a good move, since it probably has a higher SPF level. But they make children's sunscreen for a reason; the ingredients used in adult sunscreen are designed to absorb differently into the skin.

The US Food and Drug Administration and The Skin Cancer Foundation recommend using sunscreen only on children older than six months, and to keep babies out of direct sun for their first six months. That's always the safest course of action. If that's not possible, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends applying sunscreen to small areas of exposed skin in infants younger than six months old.

Slightly older children are known to have more sensitive skin, which is why different sunscreen formulas are necessary. Not only should you be more aware of buying hypoallergenic products, but their skin is also more sensitive to the sun, and are at greater risk of sunburn.

Bottom line: Adult sunscreens are made for adults, whose skin is more receptive to the lotion, and less likely to be irritated from various ingredients.

(As always, check the instructions on your sunscreen bottles and talk to your pediatrician to be completely sure it's the right product for your needs.)

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Summer's meant to be fun. Summer's about enjoying the outdoors. Summer's when you should relax and just enjoy good times in warm weather. So, just be smart -- have sunscreen with you at all times, and use it as much as you think you should (maybe even a little more). Because nothing's more relaxing than letting go, and not having to worry about safety along the way.

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