Financial Resource Center


Burning Questions About Sunscreen

by Center for Personal Finance editors / June 9th, 2011

Eighty years ago, Noel Coward wrote that "mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun." Today he'd have to include most vacationers. And without adequate protection, excessive exposure to the sun is no less "mad" than it was in Coward's day. The American Academy of Dermatology says skin cancer's direct cost is more than $1.5 billion a year; one American dies of melanoma almost every hour. Many sun-worshippers have been educated about the need to use sunscreen. However, sunscreens' powers vary and they can be misapplied, leading them to be far less than a magic shield. Here are some tips about sun protection from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), Washington, D.C., and editors from CUNA's Center for Personal Finance:
  • What is sunscreen supposed to protect you against? The culprit is invisible ultraviolet (UV) light in its two most dangerous forms—the far more common longer wavelength UVA and the shorter wavelength UVB. Although UVB is more responsible for sunburn, both UVA and UVB are known to contribute to skin damage, including cancer.
  • What does SPF mean? SPF, or "sun protection factor," is a measure of sunscreen protection from UVB, the sun's burning rays. An SPF number comes from comparing the time needed to cause redness in unprotected skin with the time needed to have the same effect on protected skin. So, if your unprotected skin were to burn in nine minutes, applying a sunscreen rated SPF 10 should allow you to stay in the sun 10 times longer, 90 minutes, before burning.
  • How should you use sunscreen? Liberally and often, especially after swimming; it is a false economy to use sunscreen at the beginning of the day and not reapply. Use a minimum of SPF 15, which blocks more than 90% of UVB.
  • Does a higher price mean better protection? A recent report from reveals that some less-expensive brands work just as well as expensive name brands.
What else can you do to protect yourself? A sunscreen's SPF, even as high as 50 or more, is no guarantee against long-term skin damage because it does not predict the effects of UVA exposure. Here's how to get broader protection:
  • Scan a sunscreen's ingredient list for zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which reflect UVA and UVB instead of merely filtering it. And check individual products in the EWG's ratings report.
  • Cover up, but remember that fabrics and colors deflect UV to different degrees, as indicated by the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). UPF numbers work like this: A white cotton T-shirt might allow one-seventh of UV through (UPF 7) while green cotton allows one-tenth to pass (UPF 10) and dark denim is practically opaque (UPF 1700).
  • And the best protection of all? Well, let's just say that you're no coward if you stay indoors during the peak hours of UV exposure—from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. (daylight-saving time).
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