SPF seems important, especially for those who are out in the sunshine. It stands for Sun Protection Factor and it is determined experimentally indoors by exposing people to artificial light that is supposed to mimic sunshine at noon. It is a measure of how well a product will protect a user from sunburn from UVB rays. Supposedly, an SPF of 15 should block 92% of the UVB light. It means that a person using the sunscreen could stay out in the sun 15 times longer than someone who is unprotected. An SPF of 30 would allow up to 30 time longer exposure.

According to the idea of SPF, if you turn pink/red after 10 minutes in the noon sun you should be able to attain the same level of redness in 150 minutes, two and a half hours, with SPF 15 protection or up to three hours with the SPF 30 product.

It seems that the higher the SPF the more protection we can achieve and that must be a good thing, right? Maybe not.

First, being in the sun causes perspiration, which can cause the lotions to wash away. People in the sun are often in or around water, and that’s another means for removing sunscreen products. If the initial application actually offers protection, it would be advisable to re-apply frequently as the cream may wash or wear off. That’s logical but not necessarily a good health move. Note too that there are clothes made to block UVB – up to SPF 30.

Second, sunscreen products contain chemicals that are designed to block UVB, the burning rays. They do not block UVA. In fact, nothing but physical covering can block UVA, the other, more dangerous form of radiation in sunshine. UVA rays are responsible for skin cancer and a scant few of the available products offers protection against them. The products that block some of the UVA are the ones that coat the skin, usually with a white layer. I see people with white covering on their noses, and some even apply the products to the top of their shoulders, but it would surely be an odd sight if someone actually covered all of their exposed skin with the physical blocker (often zinc or titanium).

While you may not get as red when using the popular sunscreen lotions and creams you are still being exposed to the harmful rays – even if you are careful about re-applying the products as time progresses.

Buying into the hype about protection from SPF can easily cause a false sense of security in people who use them. This is centered on the advertising that tells us we can stay out longer. If we are able to stay out ten, twenty, or thirty times longer, we might do so – all the while continuing to soak up the rays that don’t burn, yet are still associated with cancer.

Our skin is not the impenetrable barrier we’d like it to be. Many substances are absorbed into our body through the skin. If this didn’t happen all of the topical medicines we use wouldn’t work. The fact that there are numerous topical medicines on the market attests to how well the ingredients can pass through the skin into the body. Sometimes, the UV rays can excite the chemicals in topical products, making them into free radicals, which act like other free radicals in our body (the substances associated with aging, chronic disorders, and of course, cancer).

SunBURN is a strong indicator of skin damage and disease later in life. One recent article points out that, “White women who get five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 have an 80 percent increased risk for melanoma — the most deadly form of skin cancer, new study findings indicate.” The goal, then, is to eliminate burning. The SPF model can help if used correctly, but too many of us don’t fully grasp how to make it helpful – and high SPF values that depend on potentially harmful chemicals make the equation even more difficult.

What can we do, then?

Regardless of how great we might think a dark tan looks, it is never worth burning to achieve. Fifteen to twenty minutes on a sunny day is enough and we don’t need more SPF protection for that. Consider light clothing and a hat if you want to stay out longer. Some recent reports demonstrate that pure coconut oil adds protection, as much as SPF 10, meaning ten times the exposure – at best. Who, though, really wants to bake themselves for over two hours at a time? Be smart. Avoid excess.