Choose your cover: Maximizing Sunscreen Efficacy

What if you could be armed with an invisible force field that would protect you and your loved ones form any unseen dangers and harm? Sounds good, right? To have a secure way of ensuring you and your loved ones are safe all day, every day, would definitely be ideal. What if I told you that your search for this invisible bulletproof vest has been right under your nose and that you can get it at your favorite dermatologist’s office? That lifesaving product is none other than sunscreen.

Sunscreen, when used properly, works much akin to a coat of armor; an almost invisible bulletproof vest that contains organic molecules that absorb, scatter and reflect ultraviolet radiation, thus protecting you and your family members from a silent killer called the sun. Over-exposure to UV rays means a significantly heightened risk for skin cancer, which is the commonly diagnosed cancer in the world and, yet, the most preventable.
Two decades ago, sunscreen was relatively unheard of, whereas today it is part of our common jargon. Increased awareness of skin cancer and the importance of sunscreen, even sun protective clothing have, in ways, only further confused us and perhaps even caused us to ignore the warnings. Have you ever wondered why there have been occasions when you slapped on a pound of SPF 45 before hitting the beach only return home burnt to a crisp? The problem is, we are told to use sunscreen but aren’t being instructed on how to properly apply it; to maximize its efficacy.

Unlike a bulletproof vest, however, sunscreen must be re-applied in order for it to properly provide protection from ultraviolet radiation. Consider the 30-20-2 rule: Apply an SPF 15+ sunscreen on at least 30-minutes prior to going outdoors—even on cloudy and cold days, reapply it within the first 20-minutes of being outside, and then reapply consistently in two hour intervals. (For children under 18, sunscreen must be applied every hour). The reason sunscreen works this way is based on the mechanics of our skin.

As we learned in the beginning of this course, our skin works much how a sponge does. The top layer, the epidermis, absorbs sunscreen, forming a protective layer on top of the skin that blocks UV rays from reaching the melanocytes that lie deep within the skin. Yet, your skin reaches its saturation point after approximately two hours, thus leaving you unprotected from ultraviolet exposure and causing sunburn and/or other skin-related damage. Hence, it is imperative that a broad-spectrum sunscreen be reapplied in order to maximize its protective powers.

Alas, not all sunscreen products out on the market today work proficiently. To deliver optimum level of protection, a sunscreen must have sufficient quantities of essential ingredients. In other words, when choosing the best sunscreen product for your family, take a look at the bottle— You will want to make sure it contains proven effective agents such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. (Preferably, a minimum 5% of both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide). Furthermore, make sure the product is a broad-spectrum formula, meaning that it blocks both UV-B and UV-A rays. If the sunscreen is not broad-spectrum, do not buy it! You are not being sufficiently protected or covered.

The significance of a broad-spectrum sunscreen cannot be over-emphasized. UV-B and UV-A rays have varied affects on your skin, your immune system, and your body as a whole. UV-B irradiation disrupts the melanocytes, causing them to release the redness known as sunburn. Any change in the color of your skin as a result of over-exposure to ultraviolet radiation is damage to your skin, even if your skin tends to tan as opposed to burn. Any change in your skin pigmentation is your melanocytes way of telling you that normal, healthy cells have been severely disrupted and, thus, they are trying to compensate for the damage they have sustained (but photo damage from ultraviolet radiation is un-repairable). On the other hand, damage to your skin caused by UV-A irradiation is far more serious. UV-A rays are especially harmful as they penetrate deep beneath your epidermis, into the layer underneath known as the dermis. Typically, the immediate affects of UV-A rays are not visible, but they are the chief culprit behind photo-aging and wrinkling. Have you ever left basketball outside in the hot summer sun for a lengthy period of time? Then, when you went to retrieve the ball, you almost immediately notice that the elasticity of the ball has weakened. The ball feels almost as if it has melted and never quite bounces back. This is exactly what happens to your skin as a result of prolonged UV-A exposure. Both UV-B and UV-A rays have cumulative affects and coupled together can lead to skin cancer. Ultraviolet radiation is a known carcinogen that adversely damaging affects on a variety of biological systems.

Thusly, make sure you understand SPF when purchasing a brand of sunscreen, and do not be fooled by those that claim to deliver a high level of protection. For starters, SPF stands for sun protection factor (or sunburn protection factor). The way SPF works can be best described by the following example:

A SPF 20 sunscreen is only allowing five out of every 100 UV protons to reach your skin. In other words, it is protecting you from an estimated 95% of UV rays. Therefore it is strongly recommended that a minimum SPF 15 sunscreen be used year-round. Yet, if you are planning a long, leisurely day at the lake or even a marathon day on the ski slopes, up your sunscreen to a SPF 30 and be sure to apply the 30-20-2 rule so as to prevent a painful reminder of your day of recreation. It is noteworthy to mention that, according to the American Cancer Society, 60% of Americans suffered [at least] one severe blistering sunburn last year as a result of improper sunscreen application and use. Could this lack of proper sun safety be contributing to the ever-increasing skin cancer incidence? How many skin cancers could be avoided if we were to only properly use a SPF 30 broad-spectrum sunscreen? Certainly the world’s most common cancer can be prevented if we are more proactive about properly protecting ourselves with adequate sunscreen. Would the crusaders of old leave their homes to face a battle without being adequately armed with protection or equipped with the proper weapons to defend themselves from the enemy at-hand? Of course not! So, be sure to properly and regularly apply sunscreen to your skin. After all, a well-made sunscreen is the closest to a bulletproof vest we have against a growing epidemic—skin cancer.

For questions about how to find a good sunscreen, or ways to encourage the people in your life to wear (and reapply) sunscreen, feel free to email me at or leave a comment on my blog at


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