Choosing a sunscreen for outdoor workers

My job requires a lot of work outdoors in the sun. If I apply an SPF 30 sunscreen, how well-protected from skin cancer will I be?

Answered by Richard Rich, R&R Lotion, Scottsdale, AZ.

To many people, a suntan is a sign of wealth, health and beauty. We spend time at the beach, in tanning salons and with reflectors trying to obtain the "natural" tan look, but after 20 years of sun abuse, when cancer, wrinkles and premature aging start to show up, we begin to realize that wasn't such a good idea. In fact, the cosmetic industry has made hundreds of millions of dollars on skin rejuvenating products, peels, injections and other remedies to relieve the damage the sun has caused.

To someone who works indoors, sunlight may seem to be a friend, but for an outdoor worker, the sun should be considered the enemy. While outdoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., a worker is exposed to two-thirds of that day's ultraviolet radiation. More than 1 million new skin cancers are diagnosed each year, and 90 percent are caused by sun exposure. In order to guard against skin cancer and fight the effects of premature aging, people of all skin types need to understand how sunscreen works.

Ultraviolet radiation blasts down from the sun in different wavelengths: UVB and UVA. UVB rays cause sunburn and redness. SPF, which stands for "sun protection factor," is a guide to the amount of protection a sunscreen provides against UVB rays. A sunscreen with SPF 30 means the wearer should not burn for 300 minutes.

A worker wearing sunscreen might feel safe and assume he or she is protected against skin cancer, but this is not the case. Repelling UVB rays isn't difficult; most sunscreens do it using their SPF as a gauge, and they do a good job. UVA rays, however, are a different story. SPF has absolutely nothing to do with a sunscreen's protection against UVA rays, which reach deeply into the sub-skin layers and damage skin cells. UVA is more insidious than UVB, causing damage that goes undetected until years later when it turns up as wrinkles, premature aging and skin cancer.

Workers should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays. However, only three major FDA-approved ingredients protect against UVA rays: avobenzone "Parasol 1789," titanium dioxide, and zinc oxide. These ingredients are known as UVA filters, and are found in two forms: chemical and mineral. Avobenzone depends on a chemical reaction within the skin, while titanium and zinc oxide reflect light from the skin's surface, blocking harmful rays. Titanium protects against only short-wave UVA, while zinc protects against both short-wave and long-wave UVA rays.

Using a chemical and mineral combination sunscreen will provide outdoor workers with the most effective UV protection. Zinc oxide covers both UVA and UVB rays and has been used in different formulations for more than 300 years.

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