Last weekend I was in Bend, Oregon for a girl’s getaway with my friends Chris and Nancy. At the end of the trip, and on our way to the airport to drop Nancy off, we suddenly realized we had an hour to kill. So, we did what felt natural and pulled into the local Walgreens. Nancy had been raving about the new all day lip stain she had just bought and wanted us to see it for ourselves in the store environment. As if seeing it under the florescent retail lights would somehow prove her claims of ever lasting color.
In the store we saw the supposed life altering product and were unimpressed. It was a pair of smallish, unforgettable wands, wrapped in impenetrable plastic and surrounded by competitive brands promising their own version of perma-color. Neither Chris nor I was particularly interested in stained lips so we moved onto the more urgent section: Anti-Aging. So many promises so many products, we were mesmerized. And that’s when Chris popped the question, “How do you know what SPF to use?”
This is a question I enjoy answering because I am mole-y and white and because I go to the dermatologist at least two times a year for an overall body check. By mere heredity, association with an expert, and good insurance, I consider myself an authority on the topic. So, with the conviction of a junior dermatologist, I advise my olive skinned friend, “The bigger the better, baby.”
My doctor has never really explained to me the difference between the 15, 30, 55, 70 or 85 ratings but I am assuming that 85 is naturally better than 30 … right? But my answer isn’t good enough for Chris so she presses, “What exactly does that number mean?” Chris is a lawyer so she really likes to ask the tough questions. “Does it mean that 85 percent of your face is safe? Or can you be out in the blazing sun for eighty-five minutes? Or, does it mean you are eighty-five times more protected than if you didn’t wear any screen at all? Or does it mean that it all goes to hell and a hand basket at eighty-five degrees?”
“Listen missy,” I implored, “If you have ask you’re in trouble. It’s blatantly obvious; the higher number means you are less likely get skin cancer. Have you ever seen anyone with skin cancer on their face? It’s like the Elephant Man with a sunburn. Bottom line, wear the highest you can get and put it on often.” Chris rolled her eyes and headed away from me toward the vitamin isle.
Fast forward a few days.
Yesterday morning as I was preparing for a walk I pondered the sun screen choices before me in the cabinet. I had a tube of 30, 50, 70, and 85. I was going to be out for an hour under a partially sunny Seattle sky. Naturally I reached for the 85 but then wondered … is this overkill? It is after all, a little more expensive than the others and it is the dead of winter. I impulsively pulled out the 30 and lathered my face.
Luckily for me, I was walking with my friend Laura who used to work for the Body Shop. Laura knows everything. She’s not one of these friends who adlibs her knowledge, as I have been known to do. When she says she knows something, it means she’s had some real life experience with the subject. So when I asked her about the real meaning of the SPF rating she responded with the knowledge of someone with real expertise. “Take the time it takes for you to get burned. Let’s say it’s ten minutes. If you have SPF 85 it means that your sunscreen will last eight-five times your burn rate.”
Okay, I’m no scientist but this sounds fishy. In order for that to work you would need to go out into the blazing sun with a friend who promises to hold a stopwatch to your face until you start to burn. Once you are the perfect shade of pink that same friend writes down your individual “burn time” and you have your basis from which all SPF numbers are derived at that time, on that day, in that month, in that year. Hmmmm.
When I question the method, Laura backtracks a bit, second guessing her answer. “Maybe I’m not remembering right. Maybe it’s eighty-five minutes past the established burn time.” I mull this over, until she closes the conversation with, “But, then again I have read that anything past SPF 30 is bogus.”
Later in the evening, I ask my husband if he knows what the silly numbers are on the sunscreen bottles. And he says, “Oh yeah, it makes total sense. You multiply the number on the tube by the amount of time it takes to reach a sun saturation point. So the higher the number the longer you can stay in the sun without reapplying.” Then I ask him, “Do you know what the hell you’re talking about?” And he replies, “No, but bigger is always better, right?”
Right before going to bed I decided to Google The Meaning of SPF. This is what Google says: the SPF indicates the time a person can be exposed to sunlight before getting sunburn with a sunscreen applied relative to the time he or she can be exposed without sunscreen.
So Chris … I am not sure I know what that means, but I would say … go big or go home, baby!