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Healthy Living: Sunscreen Safety Tips

Do you wear sunscreen every day? Just as importantly, what do you know about the stuff that you’re slathering on yourself and your kids?

Last month, the federal government announced some big changes in how sunscreen makers can label and advertise their products. The changes won’t take effect until 2012, but you can use this information now when you’re choosing, and using, sunscreen, to get the best protection possible.

There’s no such thing as waterproof sun protection. Starting next year, companies can no longer claim their sunscreen is waterproof. So even if you’re using something this year that says it lasts through water exposure, or is “sweatproof,” it doesn’t, and it’s not.  Always re-apply sunscreen after swimming or sweating, and at least every two hours while outside, regardless of what you’ve been doing.

There’s no such thing as sunblock. Sunblock implies complete protection, and even the strongest formulations can’t block every ray. The term will be banned next year. In the meantime, take label claims with a grain of salt, and remember to take other precautions from the sun: Wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, and light, protective clothing when possible. And stay out of the sun during the brightest part of the day when you can.

The best sunscreens protect against two kinds of rays. So-called “broad-spectrum” products provide protection again both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Many products don’t; read the labels to be sure. Only those products that protect against both rays will help protect against skin cancer and skin aging, because both rays can cause skin cancer. Many products protect only against UVB, the rays that cause sunburn, but UVA protection is especially important, as those are the rays that penetrate deep into your skin and can cause premature skin aging. Zinc oxide products provide UVA protection.

70+ SPF  ratings? Unnecessary. Those products with super-high SPF ratings are overkill. (The SPF rating measures the product’s ability to prevent sunburn, caused by UVB.) For the best protection, you need a product with at least 30 SPF, and up to 50 SPF, but according to the Food and Drug Administration, ratings over 50 SPF do not offer any more protection. However, don’t choose a product with under 15 SPF. It is not strong enough to be effective.

Use enough product to protect yourself. The FDA didn’t mention this, but your dermatologist probably would love us to bring it up: Cover your skin liberally. Most people need one ounce to properly coat their exposed skin. That means if you apply it as you’re supposed to – every single day – that 8-ounce tube will only last a little more than a week. But then again, isn’t your skin, and your health, worth protecting?

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