High humidity and temperatures in the mid-90s have already arrived in my hometown. I wake up feeling very much like P. Diddy but looking a whole lot more like Louis XIV, if he were a redhead and a woman. It is not a pretty sight and my husband and children are often startled by it first thing in the morning. Once I deal with humidity-head, I can concentrate on preparations required to leave the house and exist outdoors. This mainly involves sun protection, which is no small feat and often involves alienating those who love me.
My best friend and I have known each other since we were eight so she has known for a very long time that I am a redhead. Though she has naturally brunette tresses, she hails from the pasty regions of Europe, no different than me. Despite this obvious fact, she pretends that she is a descendant of the peoples of the Mediterranean. So, when I came to her pool not long ago, she looked at me in all her similarly pale, freckled glory and asked me about my Nanook of the North get-up. When I decided to swim, her little girl stared at me after I took the plunge. I told her that it was OK – despite what it looked like, I was not actually wearing all my clothes in the pool.
It is hard to be friends with a redhead at the pool. We show up with no less than a hat, a full-coverage bathing suit and a swim shirt or some other lame sunscreen clothing, sunglasses and of course, plenty of actual sunscreen. I often go to the pools in my hometown with another redhead and it is like being in a traveling circus of pool freaks. As we search out the giant umbrellas and the extra protection the shade provides, people cut a wide berth and small children hide behind their mommy’s exposed legs and no-skirt bikini.
When summer hits, it seems easy enough to spray or smear some sunscreen on and go play all day, but the story is more complicated. There are lots of products to baffle you in the aisles and our instincts are left whimpering with confusion in the corners of our brains. Latest in the news is information regarding the chemicals used in sunscreen. It is not surprising that their effects are being studied, particularly since our generation has been slathering our kids with the stuff since they were six months old. Thankfully, the FDA has issued new guidelines for sunscreen labels which will hopefully make choosing one easier.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more information regarding the chemicals in sunscreen is needed but it is most important to continue protecting ourselves. They remind us that sun protection means using not just one method, but all of them. Below is information to guide you before hitting the beach or pool:
SPF – Sun Protection Factor is only related to sunburn. The number means this: how much time in the sun causes sunburn with sunscreen divided by how much time in the sun causes sunburn without sunscreen. Or, multiply the sunscreen factor by how long you can normally stay in the sun without sunscreen before you burn. I can be in the sun for about 5 minutes before I begin to burn, so with a 15 SPF sunscreen, I am burn-free for a little more than an hour. Do not be led into a false sense of security by higher SPF numbers; reapplication is always important.
UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) Clothing – UPF is fabric’s SPF number. Swim shirts have become more widely available, especially for children. They are now offered through mainstream storefronts like Old Navy and Target as well as online or catalog shops like Land’s End and Coolibar. My experience is that you get what you pay for regarding how long the garment lasts. Check out for more detailed information on how fabric protects.
Spray vs. Lotion – Sprays are easy to apply and some can be sprayed on wet skin but they should not be inhaled or sprayed directly into the face. Lotions take longer to apply but with a little time, it is easy to get every exposed nook and cranny. With any sunscreen, using enough and reapplying is crucial. Recently, a man in Arizona caught fire after applying spray sunscreen and then proceeding to his grill so my children and I will stick with lotion.
Amount – In order to actually do its job, enough sunscreen needs to be applied. On average, one ounce or about two tablespoons of lotion is needed for your body every two hours to be effective. This is especially true if you are sweating and/or swimming, even if the lotion is “water-resistant” or “waterproof.” Another teaspoon is required for your face. Use common sense regarding this amount – if your exposed skin surface is above or below average, you do not fall into the category of average.
UVA – These are the longer, less intense waves of the sun that penetrate the deeper layers of our skin. They are present all year, including cloudy days, and cause tanning, eye damage and contribute significantly to the aging process and skin cancer. They also penetrate glass so you will not burn through the car window, but you will add to your wrinkle and possibly your malignant mole collections.
UVB – The shorter, more intense waves of the sun cause sunburn and redness. Just like their longer cousins, they also cause aging, eye damage and skin cancer. They are also around all year, but are most intense during the spring, summer and fall from 10am-4pm. Their reflective quality is what fools you – things like water, snow and ice reflect 80% of the rays so you are effectively doubling your exposure.
Clearly, it is important to diversify how you protect yourself from the sun. Keep a wide range of products on hand to maximize the possibility that you will actually use them. Try different products and stock up on those that you and your family like the most. Try the swim shirts and sun clothing. Get some wide-brimmed hats. If you are really ready to go the distance, join the redheads. Maybe together, we can make bonnets cool again.