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There is more to know than just the SPF
There is more to know than just the SPF

For a mother, this time of year brings some relief, but also anxieties. Relief comes from the loosening of school schedules, along with homework, tests, sports practices, recitals, and games. Anxiety comes in many forms, but one in particular is protecting children from the harmful effects of sun exposure. As a pharmacist, I thought I knew the basic, most important rules of sunscreen: choose the right protection factor or SPF, apply sunscreen liberally prior to sun exposure, and reapply frequently especially after swimming and exercise. In addition, my research has affirmed that these are the basic and important rules of sunscreen use. However, there is much more to know.

Rays of sunlight can be broken down into types. The most common types of rays are referred to as UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate deep within the skin to cause long-term skin damage. They increase the aging process of the skin and the risk of malignant melanomas. UVA rays are continually (year-round) present in sunlight. They do not cause any reddening or pain. UVB rays affect the epidermal (superficial) layer of the skin and cause the sunburn, or tan. The intensity of UVB rays differs throughout the day. When referring to peak sun hours (10am to 2pm), the UVB rays are being measured. UVB rays are most intense during the summer months and can increase the aging process of the skin and the risk of skin cancers.

Sunscreens are classified according to their SPF (sun protection factor). Yet, SPF is a measure of the sunscreens effectiveness against only UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the more protection against sunburn by the UVB rays. SPF indicates the time a person can spend in the sun before getting sunburn, compared to someone who did not use a sunscreen. For example, if it typically took someone ten minutes of exposure to burn in the sun, it would be expected that he/she could be exposed to the sun for eighty minutes before burning, if a sunscreen with SPF of eight had been applied.

When purchasing sunscreen, you want to make sure that it effectively protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and just looking at the SPF is not enough.
Sunscreens contain a variety of chemicals that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. In essence, when purchasing sunscreen, you want to make sure that it effectively protects against both UVA and UVB rays, and just looking at the SPF is not enough. Zinc Oxide and titanium dioxide are the most effective ”broad spectrum” products. They are also best for those who are allergic to sunscreen chemicals. In addition, Contrary to previous formulations of these two chemicals, they are no longer the “thick white paste” products of yesterday. You can now find these in lotion and even “clear” formulations. Avobenzone (Parsol 1789 or Eusolex 9020) also provides broad coverage of UV protection, but the chemical is significantly degraded when exposed to light and therefore, avobenzone must be combined with photostabilizers. Photostabilizers slows its breakdown. Examples of photostabilizers include octocrylene, Helioplex or AvoTriplex. Avobenzone products are not quite as effective as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide products; however, many of the popular sunscreen brands contain this chemical.

So, when shopping for sunscreens this year make sure that you turn the bottle around, check out the ingredients, then cover your kids and yourself from head to toe!

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"There is more to know than just the SPF"
   authored by:
Tamara Dulin, R.Ph., is a registered pharmacist with Nightingale Home Health Care in Carmel, Indiana. A 1991 graduate of Butler University College of Pharmacy, she has spent the majority of her career in consulting. She is a past president of the Ind...

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