Everyone knows that you need to wear sunscreen when you go to the beach. Unfortunately, no one seems to know how much sunscreen you need or what SPF to use.
The last time I went into a store, I saw sunscreen with SPF 100. I didn’t know that they could go higher than SPF 60. Instead of wasting money on a product that I don’t need, I wanted to find out what SPF I should use.
What Does the SPF Rating Mean?
What SPF is best for the beach? Most consumers don’t even know what the SPF rating on the sunscreen means. People often purchase the bottle with the highest number. Before explaining what SPF rating you should look for, I should explain how these ratings work.
I always thought that the SPF rating referred to the amount of time that you can spend in the sun before getting burnt. It turns out that the SPF rating is simply a measurement of how much UV radiation is needed to cause a sunburn on the protected skin compared to unprotected skin.
Instead of allowing you to stay outside for 15 hours, an SPF 15 sunscreen provides 15 times the amount of protection compared to not wearing sunscreen at all.
If it normally takes me an hour to get burnt without wearing sunscreen, SPF 15 lotion should allow me to stay outside for 15 hours without getting sunburned. However, you also need to account for changes in solar activity. During the peak hours of 10 AM to 2 PM, the sun delivers stronger UV rays.
Why Should You Buy a Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen?
Along with the SPF rating, you may see some sunscreens labeled as offering broad-spectrum protection. Broad spectrum is not another marketing term. It really does make a difference in protecting against harmful rays from the sun.
There are two types of light rays that you should be concerned about: UVA and UVB rays. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause skin cancer. However, UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn.
While all sunscreens are designed to protect against the UVB rays, not all sunscreens offer UVA protection. Only the sunscreens labeled as providing broad-spectrum protection can shield against the UVA rays.
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Experts Disagree on the Best SPF Rating
The FDA monitors the labeling and marketing of food and drugs. With sunscreen, the FDA evaluates claims to ensure that consumers are aware of the amount of protection provided by the sunscreen.
Recently, the FDA suggested that sunscreen manufacturers should stop labeling any sunscreen products with an SPF rating higher than 50. They believe that SPF 50 is as close to complete protection as you can get and anything higher is simply a marketing ploy.
When you use SPF 50 sunscreen, the sunscreen is blocking about 98% of UVB rays while SPF 30 blocks about 97%. You cannot reach 100% protection without covering your entire body in a tarp.
The FDA recommends that everyone use SPF 15 for all outdoor activities. However, there are some dermatologists who recommend using SPF 30 every time you step out the door and SPF 50 for the beach. They claim that most people don’t apply the lotion correctly, minimizing the labeled protection factor.
Meanwhile, the Skin Cancer Foundation suggests that people use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher. Depending on who you ask, you should use anywhere between SPF 15 and 50.
While the experts cannot agree on a general recommendation for sunscreen, the highest recommendation is SPF 50. If you apply it correctly, this should offer optimal protection and block up to 98% of UVB rays.
Proper Tips for Applying Sunscreen for the Beach
As dermatologists claim that most people don’t apply the sunscreen correctly, I suggest you learn the proper way to work the lotion into your skin.
Before applying sunscreen lotion, check the expiration date. Sunscreen lotion does expire and loses its effectiveness at blocking UV rays. An older sunscreen may not provide the SPF listed on the label.
When applying the lotion, you need to cover all skin that is exposed to the sun. Typically, most adults need to use about one ounce of lotion to cover their bodies. However, this depends on the amount of exposed skin. If you’re wearing a long-sleeved t-shirt on the beach, you may get hot but you shouldn’t need to apply lotion to your torso.
Cover all exposed areas and rub the lotion into your skin. Don’t forget to apply lotion to your back. You can either get someone to apply it for you or use a spray-on sunscreen lotion.
It takes about 15 minutes for the sunscreen lotion to get absorbed by your skin. Instead of slathering on the lotion and immediately running around on the beach or jumping in the water, you should wait at least 15 minutes.
You also need to reapply sunscreen, especially after going for a swim. The FDA made sunscreen manufacturers stop labeling their products as waterproof. Instead, they may state that their sunscreen is water-resistant.
If you don’t go in the water, you should still reapply the sunscreen lotion every two hours. You may also want to reapply more frequently if you sweat a lot.
Final Answer: What SPF Is Best for the Beach?
When you buy sunscreen lotion, what SPF should you look for? According to the FDA, you should stick with SPF 15. If you start to exceed SPF 50, the extra protection is minimal. However, some dermatologists recommend that you use a higher SPF as most people don’t apply sunscreen properly.
In the end, any SPF rating is better than none. I choose to play it safe and use an SPF 40 or 50 whenever I plan on spending the day outside.
Before your next trip to the beach, check the label on your sunscreen. If it’s lower than 40, you may want to upgrade. If it’s higher than 50, just know that the extra protection may not make much of a difference. Also, don’t forget to choose a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection.
Megan Jones is the lead author of Seaside Planet. She is an avid surfer, scuba diver, and travel enthusiast who takes any opportunity she can to spend time in the ocean. You can learn more about Meg and the rest of the editorial team here.