The right sunscreen can save your life. Here’s why…

Woman over 60 with sunburn

Choosing the right sunscreen and knowing how to use it could literally save your life.  If you are like most women over 60, you probably think you know the basics about sunscreen: the shot glass full, the SPF, remembering to apply to your ears, etc.  I was one of those people.  But when I went deeper into the research, I was shocked at how little I really knew.  And how lax I had become in using sunscreen as I’ve gotten older.

This article was originally published on June 28, 2018. It was reviewed and updated on June 15, 2023.

Can sunscreen make a difference at my age?

If you are like most women, you probably have some skin discolorations, brown marks and wrinkles from spending time in the sun.  And who didn’t get one of those painful, full-body sun burns when we were young, the ones that turned our skin lobster-red and sore for days?

Perhaps you are thinking that you already have all the damage you are going to get from the sun.  And that there is nothing we can do now to repair sun damage we experienced as children and young adults.

The reason this is such an important topic for our age group is that we are still at considerable risk for skin cancer.  According to the American Cancer Society, the average age for diagnosis of skin cancer is 59, although more young people are getting it as well.  In the fight against skin cancer, sunscreen is one of the most important tools you can use to help protect yourself against the sun.

1928: research finds link between sun and cancer

Zinc oxide, an ingredient that blocks sun rays, has been used for centuries as protection against the sun.  Hard core mountain climbers have used this product for years.  An Australian dermatologist, Norman Paul, was the first to connect sun exposure with skin cancer in a book published in 1918.  His findings were largely ignored until a decade later when scientists learned definitively that UVB rays caused cancer. In 1946, Swiss chemist Franz Greiter introduced what may have been the first effective modern sunscreen.

If you are 60 or older, it’s likely you wore little sun protection as a child. As a young adult, you may have used suntan lotion when striving for an après vacation glow.  But you probably only became aware of sunscreen much later—in the late 1970s or early 1980s.

If the link between sun exposure and skin cancer was discovered in 1928, why did it take so long for the practice of using sun protection to be widely accepted?  One possible explanation is that popular culture is often at odds with scientific evidence.

“And the girls all get so tanned…”

We can blame Coco Chanel in part for starting the tan trend—and being the reason that most people ignored what Dr. Paul had discovered.  In the 1920s, she spent time in the South of France, soaked up the sun and popularized the idea of the “healthy tan”.  Women everywhere frolicked on the beach and went home, relaxed, brown and healthy looking.

In the mid to late 1960s, the California beach scene became a phenomenon with The Beach Boys at its epicenter.  Geoff Boucher, in an article about the Beach Boys in the Los Angeles Times, described Brian Wilson and Mike Love spending a night “building a hit that would define the sun-tanned promise of L.A. as the center of American glamour and youth”.  The song they wrote that night was “California Girls” and it became an anthem for the era.

America wasn’t the only place where the beach scene epitomized glamour and carefree abandon.  Across the Atlantic, French movie stars Brigitte Bardot and Catherine Deneuve cavorted with their lovers on the French Riviera, sans bikini tops—and sun protection.  It wasn’t until the late 1970s and 1980s, when the negative effects of the sun became more known that the practice of using sunscreen became more widespread.

What you absolutely need to know about SPF

In 1962, Franz Greiter—the same chemist who introduced modern sunscreen in the ‘40s—introduced the Skin Protection Factor (SPF) rating system, now the worldwide standard for measuring a sunscreen’s effectiveness. With SPF being the key factor in choosing a sunscreen, it is important to understand what it says about a product.

How does the SPF translate into the amount of time you can expect a sunscreen to protect your skin?

  • First, determine how long it takes your skin to burn without protection (when your skin turns red, it is burned). For most people, that length of time is about 20 to 30 minutes.
  • If you apply a sunscreen with an SPF of 15, you would multiply 30 (the length of time) by the 15 (the SPF).  That means that you’re technically protected for 450 minutes, or 7.5 hours.
  • Since most don’t spend that much time in the sun, it would be easy to assume that SPF 15 sunscreen is enough protection for a day at the beach. Alas, making sure your skin is protected from the sun is not that simple. Here’s where it gets complicated.

Frequency and amount: the key things you need to know about sunscreen

If you take away nothing more from this article than the two key terms–frequency and amount–it will have been worth your time to read it.  While the SPF concept works perfectly in the lab, it’s not the same as a day at the beach–sunscreen breaks down and wears off with friction, swimming, sweating, and mixing with your skin’s natural oils.  As such, the key to adequate protection from the sun—even more than the SPF factor—is how frequently you apply it and the amount that you use. This is the one area where even the most diligent are likely to fall short. 

  • Frequency: Most sites, including that of the American Academy of Dermatology, recommend applying sunscreen every two hours or as soon as possible after swimming or working up a sweat.  They also suggest asking yourself, “‘Will my face, ears, arms or hands be covered by clothing?’ If not, apply sunscreen.”
  • Amount: A shot glass full to cover your body. But most people, according to the AAD, “only apply 25-50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen.”

While it’s not easy to take a break every two hours to apply a shot glass full of sunscreen this is the only way to make sure you are adequately protected from the sun.  And, you will still need to apply sunscreen if you are under an umbrella or wearing a wide-brimmed hat.

The Skin Cancer Foundation maintains that “No single method of sun defence can protect you perfectly.  Sunscreen is just one vital part of a strategy that should also include seeking shade and covering up with clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses”.

UVA and UVB: What are they and how are they different?

The United States Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer have declared ultra violet (UV) radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, to be a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance).

Sunlight consists of two harmful rays that can reach the earth: UVA and UVB.  What is the difference between them?

UVA rays

  • Cause wrinkles and age spots
  • Can pass through glass
  • Penetrate deep into the dermis, the skin’s thickest layer
  • Can suppress the immune system
  • 500 times more prevalent in sunlight than UVB rays
  • More difficult to block with chemical sunscreen products

UVB rays*   

  • Play a key role in the development of skin cancer
  • Primary cause of sunburn
  • Are blocked by window glass
  • Usually burn the superficial layers of the skin
  • More effectively blocked with chemical sunscreen products

* (a sunscreen’s SPF typically refers to the amount of UVB protection it offers)

Is higher SPF better?

Again, it’s complicated.  The purpose of SPF is to protect you against the sun’s UV rays.  Technically, the higher the SPF, the more protection you’ll enjoy, although the returns diminish greatly higher on the SPF scale.  Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 to block out 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays.

Some dermatologists believe that even the small difference in the higher SPF numbers is worth it.

According to Steven Q. Wang, MD, Director of Dermatologic Surgery and Dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in Basking Ridge, New Jersey:

An SPF 30 allows about 3 percent of UVB rays to hit your skin. An SPF of 50 allows about 2 percent of those rays through. That may seem like a small difference until you realize that the SPF 30 is allowing 1.5 times more UV radiation onto your skin. That is a 150 percent difference!

Other dermatologists think that the benefits of the small increase in protection will simply be thwarted by human nature.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that the biggest drawback of the higher SPF numbers is that they impart a false sense of security. They emphasize that protection from high-number SPFs lasts the same length of time as low-number SPFs.  In other words, a higher SPF does not mean extra time outdoors without reapplying.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) explains, “Sunbathers often assume that they get twice as much protection from SPF 100 sunscreen as from SPF 50. In reality, the extra protection is negligible.” In addition, the FDA has proposed prohibiting the sale of sunscreens with SPF values greater than 50+, calling higher SPF values “inherently misleading.” As yet, no regulation has been issued.

More on chemical, mineral, and physical sunscreens

Mineral and physical sunscreens refer to the same product, while chemical sunscreens have different properties.  When you go to the drug store to buy sunscreen, the vast majority on the shelf are chemical sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens

  • Contain chemical ingredients, such as octylcrylene, oxybenzone and octinoxate, among others
  • Work by absorbing the sun’s rays into the skin and bloodstream and changing the electromagnetic radiation effect
  • Light, easy to find, easy to apply and don’t leave a white cast on the skin—more aesthetically appealing
  • Can become unstable within an hour so must be reapplied diligently
  • Tend to be irritating due to chemical content—higher SPF values increase the likelihood of irritants
  • May also contain some of the ingredients found in mineral/physical sunscreens.

Mineral/Physical sunscreens

  • Contain natural ingredients such as zinc oxide (main ingredient in diaper rash cream) and titanium dioxide
  • Use physical filters to block the sun’s rays
  • Thicker than chemical sunscreens so not as easy to apply
  • Tend to leave a white cast
  • Don’t break down or become unstable
  • Protect against the entire UVA and UVB spectrum as they block out the sun’s rays
  • Don’t contain chemicals.

There are two schools of thought on the merits of chemical versus mineral sunscreens.

Since chemical sunscreens are easier to apply, easier to find and more aesthetically pleasing—and since any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen–some dermatologists believe that these factors alone warrant using chemical sunscreens.

Others believe that the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are dangerous—particularly those that are absorbed into the body and can be found in the blood, breast milk and urine.

If you are diligent about sun protection and willing to put up with some of the drawbacks of mineral sunscreens–such as a slight white cast on the skin and less availability—then they are probably your safer choice.  But again, the chemicals in chemical sunscreens are far less dangerous than sun on unprotected skin.

What your sunscreen absolutely must contain

Regardless of which type of sunscreen you choose, to be effective, your sunscreen must state the following on the back of the box or tube:

  • Broad spectrum: means that it offers protection from both UVA and UVB rays
  • An SPF 30 or higher
  • Water resistant: no sunscreen is waterproof, so manufacturers use the term “water resistant”. Water resistant means that SPF is maintained for up to 40 minutes in the water.  And even if you are not going to be swimming, most people sweat in the sun and sweat has the same effect as water: it will break down your sunscreen.

Editor’s Note: Researching this article on sunscreen was a reality check for me.  While I regularly use a moisturizer with an SPF 15 or more on my face every morning, I had become very lazy in applying sunscreen to my body.  Since I have never liked lying in the sun, and I always sit under an umbrella, I figured I was protected.  As I found out, I was not.  Sunscreen has now become a staple for me, like toothpaste and shampoo. 

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