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Don't Get Burned on Your Next Vacation

At what age should we start slathering on the creams to protect our skin from the dangerous UV rays? Is it enough to only use creams and lotions? Does it really expire after a year? And heck, are you supposed to wear sun-protective clothing all year?
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When I was a junior in high school, I had the best summer job ever. I was a lifeguard.

And even though I looked nothing like the cast members of Baywatch, I still managed to make the cover of my high school newspaper.

I'd like to think it was because of my classic female shape, sunny, happy, girl-next-door face or the sheer awesomeness of my job. In fact, the story was about skin cancer, and I'm taking this trip down memory lane because I don't want you to get burned.

As a lifeguard, I clocked some serious sun exposure hours. In the interview they asked, "Aren't you worried about skin cancer?"


Who thinks about the negative effects of the sun when they're that young? Is it the parent's responsibility to start the kids on the right regimen of limiting their exposure? Or maybe the employer?

At what age should we start slathering on the creams to protect our skin from the dangerous UV rays?

Is it enough to only use creams and lotions? Does it really expire after a year?

With so many apparel companies rolling out sun-shielding sportswear, how do I know which ones to choose? Don't my regular clothes offer protection? Wait, don't we need some sun exposure?

And heck, are you supposed to wear sun-protective clothing all year? Or only during the summer?

I wasn't able to find a source that completely answered these questions, but I was able to get some answers. Please let me know if you've heard differently or have new evidence from a reliable source you trust.

Here's what I found:

Start them young

According to the American Melanoma Foundation, 80 percent of lifetime sun damage occurs in childhood. Get your children in the habit of using sun protection every day on their hands, face and arms. There are many different kinds of lotions, creams and sprays from which to choose. If your child doesn't like the greasy or sticky feel of some brands, try one that is a powder, dry-oil or dry touch.

As a lifeguard, I would stripe my face with colored zinc. The highest SPF available was 30 but the water-resistant technologies didn't exist yet. That one summer, I felt like I never stopped slathering my shoulders with cream.


The sun protection factor lie

The sun protection factor, or SPF of a lotion or cream, refers to the ability of a sunscreen to block ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause sunburns. It does not, however, include protection from UVA rays, which are more closely linked to deeper skin damage. Both UVA and UVB contribute to the risk of skin cancer.

Think of the SPF rating as a measure of the time it would take you to sunburn if you were not wearing sunscreen.

You'd think that a higher SPF product would provide better protection against the damaging rays of the sun in proportion to its rating. But that's not true. In fact an SPF 15 product blocks about 94 percent of UVB rays but when you bump up the factor to 30 it blocks 97 percent of UVB rays. SPF 45? Only blocks 98 percent and the splits get smaller and smaller because there is no 100 percent protection available.

Most dermatologists and estheticians I know recommend no more than SPF 30.

Two more things you should know about that affect the effectiveness of sunscreen are bug repellent and time. Some of the chemicals in bug repellents will reduce the protective quality of your sunscreen by more than 30 percent. And it really is true, the ingredients in your sunscreen will lose their potency over time and expired lotions may aggravate your skin.

The truth about sun protective clothes

A study by the National Center for Biotechnology Information showed that kids -- and adults -- just don't use enough sunscreen. Your next best choice is to try sun protective clothes and swimwear.

Sure you'll still need to wear sunscreen on all the bits that aren't covered up, but a hat and shirt will mask quite a lot of skin.

At first I was skeptical about designer sunscreen apparel. So when I approached UV Skinz about their line of sun protective clothing, the first thing I asked was, "Don't normal clothes protect you from the sun, too?"

The answer is yes and no.

Fabric is rated according to an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) which measures its ability to protect your skin from damaging UVA & UVB rays. Depending on the condition, weave, dyes, stretch, fiber-type, wetness and chemical treatment of the materials making up the clothes its protective power can range from UPF of 5 to 50.

A typical white t-shirt rates a UPF 8 when dry, reduced to as low as UPF 4 when wet. The majority of sunscreen apparel retains a UPF of 50+ wet or dry.

Wearing layers will also increase your protection, but may feel uncomfortable in warmer months.

One of the most important things to remember if you're going to buy clothes with a UPF rating, is to make sure they are stylish. Kids, especially tweens and teenagers, are more likely to wear specialized swimwear and protective clothing -- and keep it on -- if they think it looks cool or feels comfortable.


Sun protection for every season

Most of us forget that the sun's rays are harmful year-round, no matter the temperature. Regardless of the season, you should always use sun protection, carry and wear a hat. A cap with a nice wide brim all around will protect your scalp and face as well as your neck.

Wearing sunglasses all year-round is also important. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation your eyes can easily be seriously damaged by extended exposure to the sun. If you wear contact lenses, ask your optometrist if they are protective. Johnson and Johnson's Acuvue brand blocks 96 percent UVA and 98 percent UVB radiation.

Track your exposure

Speaking of sunlight, it is now easier than ever to gauge your level of exposure. Most local weather channels will include a general exposure rating for the day but there are a few personal items you can use as well. With really young children, use a sticker like the Sun Signal Sensors or SunSafe UV Wristband which change color to alert you when you've been in the sun too long.

The electronic SunMate UV Detectorgives an alert when the UV intensity exceeds dangerous limits so you can take the proper steps to protect your skin and eyes.

Over the years I've had several good friends undergo surgery to remove malignant cancer from their faces. It's an incredibly stressful event that can happen to anyone, anywhere.

So, before we head up to the Skyland Resort to walk sections of the Appalachian Trail in Shenandoah National Park, I'm going pick up a few 30+ UPF shirts and hats for the family.

Wouldn't you?