With summertime rapidly approaching we can look forward to south swells, scantily-clad sunbathing co-eds, the occasional jellyfish and red tide bloom, and of course the piercing rays of our nearest star: the sun. Sure it's a given that we need to slap on the sunscreen to prevent these rays from infiltrating our nearly defenseless epidermis, but choosing the right sunblock can be as challenging and frustrating as getting a wave to yourself at Trestles on that hot summer south-swell day. After some careful sunscreen research including plenty of firsthand experimentation during lunchtime sessions, (my boss completely understood the necessity of hands-on research for such an article), I've tried to help demystify sunscreen to keep your skin looking less like Peking Duck this summer.
“With summertime rapidly approaching we can look forward to south swells, scantily-clad sunbathing co-eds, the occasional jellyfish and red tide bloom, and of course the piercing rays of our nearest star: the sun”
1) Listen to Sun Tzu – Know Your Enemy:
The sun may provide us with life-giving heat and help plants grow, but don't let its altruistic exterior fool you. Fact of the matter is the sun sends deadly radiation in the form of Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, boosting cancer rates and aloe vera sales worldwide. UVB rays cause the immediate sensation of sunburn while UVA rays dive deep into your skin and attack the vulnerable interior. Both help contribute to skin cancer and are the two main items sunscreen protects against.
2) Read the Recipe:
You wouldn't throw rotten apples into a pie would you? Then why would you settle for inferior ingredients in your sun protection? Flip the label around and read the back of the tube. There are two ingredients that deal specifically with UVA rays: avobenzene and zinc oxide. If your sunscreen doesn’t have three percent avobenzene (aka butylmethoxydibenzoylmethane, the kind of sunscreen that rubs in) or 10 percent zinc oxide (the thick, pasty ingredient that stays on the face) then you may be exposing yourself to dangerous amounts of UVA rays. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has stringently specific requirements for UVB ray protection, but there isn't a consensus regarding the specific amount of the ingredient needed for UVA protection. In fact the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) number pertains more to UVB protection than UVA. It represents the amount of times longer you can stay in the sun before getting crispy than if you were only protected by skin. When it doubt: the more active ingredient the merrier.
3) To Paint or Not to Paint:
Some surfers prefer the feel of sunscreen on the face (hence the resurgence of the pink zinc alternatives), while others prefer the clear, less-greasy alternative. Luckily, both are effective. Doug Littlemore, cofounder of Headhunter Suncare explains, "Zinc is a physical blocker, which means the rays don't penetrate the skin. A typical sunscreen allows the rays in and we believe doesn't provide as good protection as a blocker."
Dr. Nic Martens, a 13-year veteran of the skin care industry with a Ph.D. in biochemistry from Cambridge, agrees that zinc can be an effective blocker, but says it's important to understand that you are burning all day. "Most people don't want to wear that stuff the rest of the day." Martens and his team recently introduced a clear, dry sunscreen under the Hawaiian Islands Creations label. He believes zinc at 10 percent concentration can be just as effective at protecting against UVA rays. "It's important to know that just because you can see zinc caked up on your face that doesn't mean it's providing superior protection, because zinc doesn't bond to the skin as well, and washes off more easily. Organic (clear) sunscreens are better absorbed by the skin and can actually be more effective long-term." Bottom line: you should be keeping track of time in the water and re-applying anyway. For the best protection you may want to use both.