03 June 2009

My amp goes to eleven

You may recall I went to Costco earlier this week. One of the things on my list was sunscreen; now that the Montclair Beach Club has opened, it is time to lay in a supply.

But when I arrived at the sunscreen display, I just couldn't do it. They were selling two brands, one with an SPF of 50, and the other, 70. WTF?

What has happened to 15 and 30?

The way I understand it, as a layperson (any dermatologists reading, correct me if I'm wrong), SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of the effectiveness of sunscreen. According to Wikipedia, the SPF refers to the amount of time a person with sunscreen applied can be exposed to sunlight before getting burned, relative to the time a person without sunscreen can be exposed. To give a concrete example, someone who would normally burn after 15 minutes in the sun can stay in the sun 15 times longer with the protection of SPF 15.

However, with regards to SPF, at a certain point, there are diminishing returns. An SPF of 50 only provides 1% to 2% more protection than an SPF 30. So higher does not necessarily mean better.

The other factor at work here is Vitamin D, which helps to maintain our organs, specifically the intestines and kidneys. Our skin naturally produces Vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun. The use of sunscreen interferes with the production of Vitamin D, and Vitamin D deficiency can lead to liver or kidney disorders, and can contribute the bone softening diseases such as rickets, and osteoporosis.

The bigger numbers are seductive, and surely, we want to do the best by our children. But there comes a point where manufacturers are preying on our insecurities; why would you go for SPF 30, when you can have the power of 70, 90, 110?

When I saw numbers ranging from SPF 50-70, I wondered if things may have gotten a little out of hand. This is a classic case of MY AMP GOES TO ELEVEN. Looked at another way, it is just one more manifestation of the American obsession with more is more, bigger is better. In Europe, sunscreen labels may legally only go up to 50; presently in the U.S., there are no comprehensive standards for sunscreen, which allows manufacturers to exploit are anxieties, and probably charge more for the privilege.

So as with all things, we must strike a balance. On the one hand, we do not want our children to get sunburns, which are painful in themselves, and over time, can contribute to melanomas. But we don't want to go so crazy with the sunscreen that we put them at risk for Vitamin D deficiency.

Trust yourself, and use common sense. If you are going for a short walk with your tender-skinned infant, put a hat on their fair head, and raise your stroller's hood, but let them soak up a little Vitamin D. If you are spending a day of prolonged outdoor exposure, at the beach, the pool, or sporting events, slather on the sunscreen, and repeat often.

But remember, the fact that the amp went to eleven was supposed to be a joke.


  1. Great news re Barista Kids! Keep up the good work ;)

  2. i hear those high spf sunscreens cause cancer.