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Travel Talk

Travel Talk: Know your SPFs, UVAs and UVBs for the summer

When I was growing up in New England, the word “sunblock” hadn’t yet been coined. In fact, companies marketed their products as “sun tanning” oils, creams and lotions – all designed to enhance your tan. Block the sun? No way! The more sun, the better! I remember wrapping cardboard in tinfoil and holding it under my chin to magnify the sun’s rays. I even slathered myself with a homemade concoction of baby oil and iodine.

Since then, we’ve come to understand not only the relationship between the sun and skin cancer, but also the types of UV light emanating from the sun and how they affect the skin. Research has translated into new and improved products to protect the skin – and, in true American fashion, a slew of claims and marketing campaigns designed to get you to buy various protections. What’s real?


The sun emits two types of ultraviolet rays that affect the skin. UVAs, which are thought to be responsible for aging and wrinkling, and UVBs, which are thought to be responsible for sunburns. Both are nasty and increase your risk for skin cancers, including melanoma.

For a long time, sunblock manufacturers could claim that their products were effective weapons against skin cancers and more. But in 2011, the FDA announced a new set of standards that must be met to make claims about protecting against skin cancer, aging and sunburns.

Products also must replace claims of being sweat-proof or waterproof with the term “water resistant” and state clearly how long the product will last on a wet or sweaty body.

The new labeling was supposed to be in effect by last summer, but some extensions have been granted.


So what to look for?

SPF stands for sun protection factor – i.e., protection against cancer, sunburn and aging. SPF 15 is a baseline of sorts. Less than 15 gives virtually no protection. SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of harmful rays, SPF 30 blocks 97 percent and SPF 100 supposedly blocks 99 percent, though there’s a question about the increase in value of anything more than SPF 50.

Consumer Reports used to recommend SPF 30 as a minimum (in addition to “broad spectrum,” meaning UVA and UVB protection), but it has now increased that to SPF 40 after a new study found that many of the sunblocks tested performed below the SPF claimed.

The numbers mean little, though, if you don’t apply the product properly: Apply 15-20 minutes before exposure, use at least a shot glass per application and reapply every two hours.

Bottom line

Once you know your labels and application protocols, head to the store. And here comes some good news: You won’t have to sell your firstborn to get the best product!

Visit for the full results, but among the best-performing products were Walmart’s Equate Ultra Protection SPF 50, Walgreens’s Continuous Spray Sport SPF 50, Coppertone Water Babies and Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch SPF 50. The highest-scoring overall was Target’s Up & UP Sport SPF 50. The best buy was Walmart’s Equate, at 63 cents per ounce.

To get the maximum effect, though, you have to actually apply the product. This means you (and your kids and spouse) have to like the scent – if not love it. I find that I can’t stand the aroma of some popular products, while others take me back to my early beach days.

Try them out, and don’t forget the ultimate protection for hard-to-corral kids: swim shirts.

(Chase Binder lives in Bow. Read her blog at travelswith

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