Living Well

What SPF Should I Use?

The sun plays a very important role in our everyday lives. It helps keep our sleep pattern on track and helps our bodies produce Vitamin D, which is important for bone function and healthy skin. But like most things, it's only good in moderation. And for those who love the sun, you probably have a hard time accepting that.

The truth is, too much sun exposure is harmful to your skin, which is why we require protection from the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. Deciding how much and what kind of protection you need depends on many factors. That's why we've put together an easy guide to help you choose the right protection.

All about UV

When considering sun protection, it's probably best to understand what exactly you're protecting yourself from. The sun's rays are made up of UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause skin damage, but in different ways. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, UVB rays cause sunburn and play a crucial role in the cause of skin cancer. While UVA rays are responsible for that glowy tan you're after, they're also wreaking havoc on your skin causing damage via aging and wrinkles.

A sunscreen's SPF protection refers to the protection it provides from the sun's UVB rays. So you're probably wondering, "What about UVA radiation?" That's where broad-spectrum protection comes in. Sunscreens with broad-spectrum protection do their best to block the entire spectrum of UV rays emitted by the sun, which is especially important when considering the harm UVB rays and UVA rays each cause.

Now that you understand what you're protecting yourself from, let's take a deeper dive into the pool of SPF so you can better understand which SPF number is right for you.

Shining a light on SPF

Not all SPFs are treated equally. So, before you ask yourself which SPF you should use, let's talk about what SPF is. The first question to consider is: what does SPF stand for? SPF is short for "sun protection factor," which indicates the effectiveness of a sunscreen vs. not wearing sunscreen. Sunscreens have many different SPF values from as low as 4 to as high as 110.

Understanding this value and what these numbers mean is essential to choosing the right SPF. According to MadeSafe.org, SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays, and SPF 100 blocks 99% of UVB rays, but no one sunscreen blocks 100%. This also does not mean a higher SPF number provides longer UV protection. I know, we promised this was going to be an easy guide, but bear with us, this part is important: SPF 30 and SPF 80 both last the same amount of time, they just offer different degrees of protection within that time frame. That's why questions like when, how much, and how often you apply sunscreen are key.

So how much is enough sunscreen?

Great question. The answer is: it depends. To practice safe sun exposure, we recommend following the instructions provided by your sunscreen product; however, there are some hard and fast rules that apply to good skincare practice.

According to QSun.co, a good rule of thumb when you apply sunscreen is "one teaspoon per body part" of exposed skin. No one expects you to bring your baking set to the beach to ensure you're accounting for the proper amount, but it wouldn't hurt to measure out a teaspoon of sunscreen in your hand so you can get used to what that measurement looks like.

While this is a helpful tip, it doesn't take into account how body surface area differs from one individual to another. In that case, it's best to make sure no piece of skin goes untouched. Applying sunscreen to dry skin, 30 minutes prior to sun exposure is recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation. This will ensure that the sunscreen has been completely absorbed by the skin to offer maximum protection against sun damage.

Another tip is to reapply, reapply, reapply. We can't stress this enough. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, one should reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or sweating. We know, it's never convenient to break up a game of Marco Polo to reapply sunscreen, but you'll thank us later when you're not feeling the stinging effect of sunburn while trying to enjoy your s'mores.

Check your sundial

Luckily for planet earth, the sun never takes a day off, but for us, that means the sun is constantly emitting harmful UV rays. Having said that, it is recommended that you wear sunscreen everyday. But when you are spending time outdoors, the sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so your best bet is to make sure you're especially covered during these hours.

Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun's harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, it's especially important to look out for things like snow, sand and water as their reflective properties can enhance your skin's exposure to ultraviolet rays.

SPF by skin type

This leads us to the second-most-important consideration when choosing SPF and that is your skin type. Whether your skin is oily, dark, or fair, you will need to consider which SPF provides your skin with the maximum protection against sun damage.

For those with normal skin (neither dry nor oily) you're in luck. Any sunscreen is fair game for your skin type. You can pretty much pick your preference whether it may be reef safe, mineral, or chemical (we'll get to these in a bit).

For oily skin, you'll want to make sure you get a sunscreen that doesn't pack on the grease. The Healthy suggests finding a sunscreen with "ensulizole as the UVB blocker, since it's the least greasy." You can also consider a powder mineral sunscreen to avoid the greasiness.

For dry skin, try a sunscreen and moisturizer combo. Another option is finding sunscreens with soothing emollients, which according to Healthline, "coat your skin with a thin oily film that seals the water in your skin," thus keeping your skin hydrated.

And then there's acne-prone skin. Have no fear, there's SPF protection just for you. Search for a lightweight moisturizing sunscreen that is "non-comedogenic," which is a fancy word for, "will not clog your pores and cause acne."

If you have particularly sensitive skin, you may even want to seek shade during the sun's high point of the day. Choosing protective clothing to minimize the amount of skin you have exposed to the sun altogether is also a good idea. Plenty of outdoor apparel retailers offer built-in UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

And if you have a history of skin cancer, or may be at high-risk for skin cancer, avoiding excess sun exposure may be best. But in the event you find yourself in the sunlight, the Skin Cancer Foundation suggests that SPF 50 may not be enough protection. Consult your doctor about which protection may be right for you.

Chemical or Mineral

There are essentially two different types of active sunscreen ingredients that help prevent UVA and UVB rays, and they are chemical ingredients or mineral (physical) ingredients. Here's how they work:

Chemical sunscreen products use active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate which according to Piedmont Healthcare, absorbs the sun's rays, converts the rays to heat, and releases them from the body.

Mineral sunscreens "work like a shield, sitting on the surface of your skin and deflecting the sun's rays," according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association. These use active ingredients like zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide and are typically a good alternative for sensitive skin types or even babies and toddlers.

No matter your desired protection, make sure not to miss the top of your head, ears, and even your lips! The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends a broad-spectrum lip balm with a minimum SPF value of 30 for healthy, sun-kissed lips.

So which SPF is right for me?

You've probably learned by now that there is no one magic number that covers every circumstance, but what you now know are the steps it takes to find out which SPF works best for you when you need it. So the next time you go shopping for sunscreen, find the right SPF by asking yourself the following:

  • Who the sunscreen is for (children or adults)
  • Skin type
  • Sensitivity to sun exposure
  • Amount of time you will be spending outdoors
  • Your preference for the type of SPF protection (chemical or mineral)
  • Lastly, always make sure your sunscreen has not expired

Remember, you can always start with a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF value of 30, which is recommended by dermatologists and research done by credible organizations. (We suggest listening to the pros on this one.) Now put up your broad-spectrum covered feet up and enjoy the great outdoors with peace of mind.


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Living Well

A Guide to the Best Over-the-Counter Allergy Medicine for You

Whether you suffer from seasonal allergies, or the whole year is just one big sneezing fit, finding the best over-the-counter allergy medicine can be a case of trial and error. With antihistamines, decongestants, combination treatments and more to choose from, there's a lot of products to sift through as you try to find the right medication for your allergy symptoms.

Thankfully, with the passage of the CARES Act in March 2020, an allergy sufferer can now purchase over-the-counter allergy medicines with no prescription required, so you can now factor in the cost of these medicines into your yearly FSA contributions. Effectively, an entire section of your pharmacy has just been opened up to FSA spending, so it's time to take advantage!

FSAstore.com makes it easy to get the health and wellness products you need to stay healthy, and with hundreds of newly stocked medications now available, we have a lot more topics to write about on the FSA Learning Center! First, let's start by examining the most common allergy medicines available for FSA spending, so you can pinpoint the best or new over-the-counter allergy meds for you and your family.


Your OTC Allergy Meds Guide

1. Antihistamines

As one of the most common OTC allergy medicines on the market, what antihistamines do is right in the name: they fight back against histamine. According to the Mayo Clinic, histamine is a chemical that is created in the body when it comes in contact with an allergen. Producing histamine is the body's immune response to allergens, which results in common allergic reactions like sneezing, sniffling, watery eyes, breaking out in hives and more. Antihistamines reduce the production of this chemical to ward off the most common symptoms of allergies.

When should I use antihistamines?

Antihistamines are a great choice during allergy season, but some may have side effects that could change how and when they are used. Some antihistamines are known to make users drowsy or tired, so always check for proper dosage and side effects when taking this medication, as well as taking into account the types of activities you will partake in after taking it. Antihistamines are available in pills, nasal sprays, eye drops and more.

Common Over-the-Counter Antihistamines: Cetirizine (Zyrtec, Zyrtec Allergy), Desloratadine (Clarinex), Fexofenadine (Allegra, Allegra Allergy), Levocetirizine (Xyzal, Xyzal Allergy) and Loratadine (Alavert, Claritin).


2. Decongestants

Decongestants are often used in tandem with antihistamines to combat a wide range of allergic symptoms and can provide allergy relief for congested nasal passage ways, but they are also sold as stand-alone medications to relieve nasal congestion. But according to WebMD, decongestants work by combating the body's immune response to swell when coming into contact with an allergen, and this typically can happen in the nasal passages that can result in feeling "stuffed up." By reducing this swelling, nasal passages can clear and decongestants can aid in treating seasonal and year-round allergy symptoms.

When should I use a decongestant?

When it comes to a stuffy nose and swollen nasal passages, decongestants are the best choice and are available in pills, liquids, nasal sprays and nose drops. As opposed to antihistamines, decongestants can sometimes leave users jittery or may experience trouble sleeping, so if this continues, speak with a doctor about your treatment options.

Common Over-the-Counter Decongestants: Oxymetazoline (Afrin, Dristan), Phenylephrine (Sudafed PE, Suphedrin PE), Pseudoephedrine (Silfedrine, Sudafed, Suphedrine)


3. Corticosteroids

Corticosteroids are another type of allergy medicine that is designed to fight inflammation to alleviate allergic reactions. According to Healthline, Corticosteroids are medications designed to emulate cortisol, a hormone naturally produced by the body's adrenal glands. Cortisol plays a vital role in a wide range of processes in the body, including metabolism, immune response, and stress. These medications are primarily used in treatment for respiratory allergies like asthma, but are effective in preventing and relieving stuffiness, sneezing and runny noses.

When should I use corticosteroids?

The vast majority of corticosteroids are only available as a prescription medication, and are used to treat a variety of conditions aside from allergies, including asthma and arthritis. For allergy sufferers, corticosteroids are primarily used to fight inflammation in the body caused by the immune system's response to coming in contact with an allergen. Corticosteroids are available in pills, nasal sprays, inhalers, skin creams and more.

Common over-the-counter corticosteroids: Hydrocortisone (Cortizone), Budesonide (Rhinocort), Fluticasone furoate (Flonase Sensimist), Fluticasone propionate (Flonase Allergy Relief), Mometasone (Nasonex) and Triamcinolone (Nasacort Allergy 24 Hour).


4. Mast Cell Stabilizers

First thing's first: what's a mast cell? It's actually a type of white blood cell that responds when the body comes in contact with antigens (foreign substances that the body perceives as a threat, such as allergens). By "stabilizing" these reactions with targeted over-the-counter allergy medicines, allergic reactions like stuffy noses, sneezing and more are kept under control by adjusting the body's immune response, reports Drugs.com.

When should I use mast cell stabilizers?

For most people, mast cell stabilizers are used when traditional antihistamines don't have the desired effects in fighting off allergy symptoms. Additionally, the Mayo Clinic reports that these drugs are generally safe but usually need to be used for several days to produce the full effect. In most cases, mast cell stabilizers are used to control asthma and allergy symptoms, specifically allergic and chronic rhinitis.

Common over-the-counter mast cell stabilizers: Cromolyn (Nasalcrom)


What's the best choice for me?

Over-the-counter allergy medicines, especially now that they're FSA-eligible, are an effective means of treating seasonal and chronic allergies year-round and can help get symptoms under control. But, no two allergic reactions are alike, and your treatment plan for allergies is uniquely your own, so we advise that before beginning any OTC medication regimen, speak with your doctor to learn about the full extent of your allergies and underlying health to find the medication that works for you — especially if you find that your current allergy medicine is not working.

The vast majority of allergy medicines on the market today are only available by prescription, and some targeted therapies are only available with a prescription from a doctor. Products such as leukotriene modifiers (Singulair) and emergency epinephrine shots (EpiPen) are only available with a prescription from a doctor and treat allergic reactions in specific, targeted ways. It may be possible that these options are a better choice to treat your allergies, so it's always best to start any treatment plan by consulting your doctor.

Finally, your current state of health also dramatically impacts what sort of treatment plan you or a loved one should pursue to treat your allergies. According to the Mayo Clinic, chronic health conditions, being pregnant or breastfeeding, age and taking other medications should be factored into any treatment plan, so these are important factors to bring up with your doctor when going in for a visit to talk about which are the best over-the-counter allergy meds for you and your family.

Now that OTC medicines are fully FSA-eligible, you have more options than ever to take advantage of your tax-free healthcare funds. If you or a loved one are still dealing with daily allergy symptoms, your FSA may just be a helpful tool on your path to allergy season relief!


Thanks for visiting the FSA Learning Center! We'll keep you posted on all the FSA changes that may be coming in the foreseeable future, so be sure to to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter for the latest updates.
Eligibility

That's Eligible?! Using FSA dollars for eye care

Considering nearly two out of every three Americans wear prescription glasses, it's surprising there's so much confusion around the FSA eligibility of eye wear and vision care. What's even more surprising is why more Americans aren't using their tax-free funds to pay for the products and services necessary to maintain proper eye health. And we're not just talking eyeglass repair kits and lens wipes -- there are some seriously surprising eye care items on our Eligibility List.

Since this winter is just getting started let's get ahead of your eye care and protection so you can make the most of the outdoors in the months ahead.

Contact lenses? Yes!

Let's be clear: there are plenty of places to buy contact lenses. But how many of them allow you to choose from a huge range of brands, entirely with your FSA, without wondering if the ones you want are eligible. Maybe we're a little biased, but we think you'll enjoy buying your contacts this way. (Oh, and when you pay with your FSA card, you can skip the receipts process!)

Prevention starts with protection…

No, we're not talking about high school health classBut the same thinking applies. According to a survey from The Vision Council, 75% of American adults in a survey are concerned about UV eye exposure, but only 31% report wearing sunglasses when going outside.

And cloudy days aren't much safer than sunny ones; you can still do some damage when it's overcast, because UV rays break through clouds and can damage unprotected eyes. Prescription sunglasses are FSA-eligible, so what's stopping you from being smarter than the 69% of people who leave their eyes unprotected?

Some lesser-known eye care options

We've used plenty of digital ink showing how laser eye surgery (more commonly known as LASIK) is completely eligible for FSA and HSA reimbursement. And we hope people are realizing that LASIK surgery is often inexpensive enough to cover entirely with their flexible spending funds.

It's not limited to LASIK, either. Medically necessary treatments and routine eye exams are all part of FSA eligible vision care.

Now, for arguably the most surprisingly eligible vision care expense of all -- guide dogs. The National Federation of the Blind has a list of guide dog schools that can connect you or your loved ones with the right service animal, should you need assistance getting around because of visual impairment or blindness.

Other eligible eye and ear care


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Don't waste time hunting for ways to spend your tax-free funds. In That's Eligible?!, we'll bring you these updates every Monday, so you don't have to. And for all things flex spending, be sure to check out the rest of our Learning Center, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Basics

Real Money: Why your FSA doesn't let you stock up on products

An FSA is a "use-it-or-lose-it" plan, which means if you don't spend all the funds in the account before the end of the year, you lose that money. So, what happens if it's December and you still have a lot of money left in your FSA account? Can you stock up on eligible products to make sure that you don't lose those funds?

The answer is no. But, there are still some options that can help you avoid this situation, so let's take a look at how you can take advantage of all your FSA benefits before year's end, while doing so within the guidelines of your FSA.

What does "stockpiling" mean with an FSA?

While the term hasn't been fully defined, according to informal remarks made by an Internal Revenue Service (IRS) official, stockpiling eligible items under your FSA means that you buy more items than you're able to use before the end of the taxable year.

Buying any more than three of the same item could be considered "stockpiling." By the very nature of FSAs, any product you buy should be to fill a need for you, your spouse or a qualified dependent. Because of this, the IRS doesn't let you to stock up on eligible items with your FSA, and your administrator can usually figure out that you're stockpiling by analyzing how many items you bought towards the end of the year.

Let's say it's December 1st and you still have $600 left in your FSA. You realize that you're running out of nasal spray, so you decide to buy 25 packs of your favorite saline solution, so you can stock up for the rest of the year and into the next, and use up the remaining balance in your FSA.

The problem is that unless you're somehow going to use all that saline solution in the next 30 days, your FSA administrator may flag that purchase as stockpiling.

If you stock up at the end of the year, your FSA administrator is probably going to send you an alert to inform you that this kind of spending isn't allowed and that those purchases wouldn't be eligible for reimbursement.

Take advantage of rollover and grace period options

The best way to avoid stockpiling is to spend down your FSA balance before you get to the month of December when the mad scramble to use your benefits tends to hit the hardest.

But if you find that you can't quite pull that off, it's important to know that some FSA plans allow you to carry over up to $500 of unused funds into the next calendar year. If your plan doesn't offer that rollover option, it may offer a grace period of two-and-a-half months at the end of the plan year.

This grace period carries over the remaining balance in your FSA into mid-March of the next calendar year for those running on a calendar year plan, which gives you more time to spend that money before you lose it.

At the beginning of the plan year, make sure you ask your FSA administrator whether your plan offers a rollover or a grace period option so you can plan your spending well in advance.

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Whether you budget week-to-week, or plan to use your FSA for bigger things, our weekly Real Money column will help you maximize your flex spending dollars. Look for it every Tuesday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Eligibility
Photo by i yunmai on Unsplash

Real Money: What's the deal with FSAs and weight loss programs?

Maintaining a healthy weight has a whole heap of benefits, one of which is warding off medical conditions. Diet and exercise is important whether you're just looking to fit into your jeans or keep up with your little ones. Sometimes you need a little push and signing up for a weight loss program could help keep you accountable and increases your chances of success.

Well, weight loss programs don't qualify for FSA reimbursement at this time. You can only use your FSA funds for weight loss programs in very limited circumstances, and even then, you will likely need to provide extensive documentation in order to be reimbursed. Before signing up for any type of weight loss program in which you plan to use your FSA funds, make sure to talk with your FSA plan administrator.

So, what weight loss products and services are eligible?

Like any other health care product, you're only able to use your FSA funds for a weight loss program if the purpose is to treat, mitigate, cure, diagnose or prevent a specific illness. This condition needs to be diagnosed by a physician and may include conditions such as obesity, heart disease and hypertension. In short, if you're doing it to fit into those jeans, that's not going to make the cut.

Once your physician does state that you should lose weight specifically to treat an illness, there may be related expenses that will qualify for FSA reimbursement. (Emphasis on "may.") This may include membership fees for a weight loss program and attending meetings. Gym, health club and spa memberships could be tougher to get approved, but you may be able to use your FSA on fees for weight loss activities with supporting documentation submitted to your administrator.

If your physician prescribes food that will help you treat your illness, you may be able to deduct a portion of that expense as well. The food can't just be part of your regular diet and must be for the purpose for treating the illness.

In other words, diet pills and meal substitutes probably won't count as an FSA-qualified special food. If there is a special food specifically prescribed to treat your condition, and the cost of that food is more than the cost of a similar food, you may be able to be reimbursed for the difference in cost.

Some FSAs may require a letter of medical necessity or similar form of documentation in order to be able to be reimbursed for these expenses. This letter basically verifies that your weight loss program or special food is specifically for the treatment of a disease. As each FSA administrator has different requirements, you'll want to check with them first on exactly what this letter will need to include.

How much can I submit for FSA reimbursement?

You can only submit FSA expenses that qualify for reimbursement as outlined previously, and only up to the amount you have elected to contribute to your FSA.

If you're interested in losing weight for health reasons, it's best to speak with your doctor beforehand. He or she will be able to assess your situation and see what programs or regiments will help. And if you're interested in involving your FSA with that weight loss goal, you definitely want to check in with your FSA administrator on what might qualify.

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Whether you budget week-to-week, or plan to use your FSA for bigger things, our weekly Real Money column will help you maximize your flex spending dollars. Look for it every Tuesday, exclusively on the FSAstore.com Learning Center. And for the latest info about your health and financial wellness, be sure to follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Eligibility

That's Eligible?! 3 FSA-eligible ways to improve home air quality

"Air pollution" is typically associated with large, industrial cities, but the truth is the air in your home might be even more polluted than outdoors. According to a recent report by the Environmental Protection Agency, indoor air pollution is a top environmental concern and can have serious health implications. Taking steps to control the air quality in your home can ultimately reduce your risk of related health concerns.

Luckily, there are some simple solutions that can improve at-home air quality. The best part? The following options just might be FSA-eligible, and worth investigating if your medical needs meet the requirements. In other words, you may be able to decrease air pollution in your home and save money. It's the ultimate win-win.

Air purifiers

Air purifiers work to decrease contaminants in a room, and they're especially beneficial for people with allergies or asthma. However, air purifiers also help to increase air quality, decrease pet dander and heal skin irritations. The stronger types of air purifiers are standalone purifiers and those that connect to larger air conditioning units.

Depending on your needs you may want to select a purifier that's designed to handle the specific source of your air quality concern. Whether that's pet dander, smoke, pollen, or even cooking odors. But always remember, the primary requirement for a good air filter is a high "Clean Air Delivery Rate."

Verdict: FSA-eligible with a letter of medical necessity from your doctor or healthcare provider. Note: Not all administrators will allow for this and it depends on your medical condition.

Air conditioners

One of the best ways to improve air quality in your home is by controlling the moisture. Here's how it works—mites and mold thrive in dark, damp places, so if you have a bathroom or basement that isn't properly ventilated, there's a good chance that the moisture in those rooms are negatively affecting your air quality.

Air conditioners with clean filters can help your house stay dry and properly ventilated throughout the entire year. For people who live in warmer climates, air conditioning units can help ensure you keep your windows closed during the heat.

Open windows allow pollen and other allergens to enter your home and harm the air quality. If you're looking to add central air conditioning, it's important to note this: Only the amount spent above the value added to the house is eligible for a reimbursement claim through your FSA.

Verdict: FSA-eligible with a letter of medical necessity from your doctor or healthcare provider.

Air filters

One of the most important things you can do to improve air quality in your home is to regularly change your air filters. If you don't have pets, you should change your air filter every 90 days. If you have one pet, the filter should be changed every 60 days. If you have more than one pet or struggle with allergies, the air filter should be changed every 30 days.

Another way to improve the air quality in your home is with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters. These filters have a special mesh that traps mites, dust, and other particulars that can make it difficult to breathe properly.

Verdict: FSA-eligible with a letter of medical necessity from your doctor or healthcare provider.

If you plan to use your FSA to pay for the products above, we recommend that you check with your FSA administrator first to see what they'll allow, and what paperwork is required to make it happen.

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Don't waste time hunting for ways to spend your tax-free funds. In That's Eligible?!, we'll bring you these updates every Monday, so you don't have to. And for all things flex spending, be sure to check out the rest of our Learning Center, and follow us on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.