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How Sunscreen Works


This consumer update is brought to you bythe U.S. Food and Drug Administration.Sunscreen can be an important part of protectingour skin from the sun’s harmful rays. But how do we know which sunscreens provide thegreatest protection?We all need protection from the sun’s ultravioletradiation.

Also called UV radiation, it includes both UVB and UVA wavelengths. Sunburn is primarilycaused by UVB. Both types of ultraviolet light can cause skin cancer and early skin aging.So how does sunscreen work? Let’s thinkof our sunscreen as if it were a beach umbrella.Does it help protect against both UVA andUVB rays, or does it let some wavelengths through?No sunscreen completely blocks UV rays.

Butby using the right product as directed, and in combination with other measures includingwearing protective clothing, you can reduce your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging.To begin providing adequate protection, sunscreens should have a Sun Protection Factor – knownas SPF – of at least 15. But that’s not enough. This will stop some UVB rays but maynot stop UVA rays. To protect against both,you need something called broad spectrum protection.

So let’s increase the protection by adding“BROAD SPECTRUM” to our SPF 15 sunscreen.Now we’re protecting against UVA and UVBrays.OK, what happens if we increase the SPF to50 but leave out “BROAD SPECTRUM?” The higher SPF provides more protection againstUVB rays – but without “BROAD SPECTRUM” this may not adequately protect against UVArays.So what does all this science boil down to?For greater protection, sunscreen should have an SPF value of 15 or higher and be “BROADSPECTRUM.”

Changes take a little time, so you may notsee sunscreens labeled this way in 2011. But starting in the summer of 2012, for the greatestprotection look for sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15 and “BROAD SPECTRUM” onthe label.


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