Department of Dermatology
Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai
Part of summer’s fun is enjoying outdoor activities like ballgames, barbecues, and days at the beach. Basking in the sun may feel heavenly, but can also have cruel consequences if you don’t adequately protect yourself from the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
Unprotected exposure to the sun causes premature aging of the skin and damages the DNA in skin cells, promoting the risk of skin cancer. Research reveals that bad sunburns, even in childhood and teenage years, can cause potentially fatal skin cancer later in life. Even one severe sunburn as a child increases your risk, and that risk rises with cumulative sun damage and sunburns over time. Thus, it is never too early or too late to start protecting skin from the sun.
Anyone can get skin cancer, regardless of skin pigment, so sun protection is an important prevention measure for everyone. People with darker skin may not necessarily get the characteristic burn or discomfort associated with intense sun exposure, but they do experience the cellular damage, and their skin cancer is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage.
Key Sun Protection Tools
A complete sun-protection plan is multipronged:
Limit sun time. UV rays are usually most harmful between 10 am and 4 pm, so avoid sun exposure then whenever possible.
Cover up. When in the sun, cover up with a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and a broad-brimmed hat. Strictly speaking, since some UV light can still pass through fabric, you should also wear sunscreen underneath regular clothing. Alternatively, you could wear garments that are specially designed to block UV rays; these carry an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating to indicate how well they filter out the sun.
Use sunscreen. Avoiding the sun, or clothing yourself from head to toe, is often impractical or uncomfortable in the summertime. That is why sunscreen is a vital tool that everyone should use—no matter how light or dark their skin tone.
Choosing a Sunscreen
With countless options on the market, choosing a sunscreen can be overwhelming. Here are some important factors to consider:
SPF. The American Academy of Dermatologists recommends choosing a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher for maximum effectiveness. Note that numbers above that are not much more protective and may cost more.
Broad spectrum. Look for broad-spectrum sunscreen, meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. UVB causes sunburn, which is essentially injury to the top layer of the skin; UVA penetrates the skin more deeply, causing premature aging.
Active ingredients. Two main types of active ingredients are found in sunscreen. Physical blockers, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, reflect sunlight and help keep it from being absorbed into the skin. Chemical blockers, like oxybenzone and avobenzone, absorb damaging rays, preventing them from traveling deeper into the skin. Neither type is 100 percent effective, so an ideal sunscreen contains both.
Spray vs. lotion. A lotion or cream provides a nice, even layer, and you know exactly where you are applying it, but you may miss areas with a spray. If you prefer using a spray for convenience, you should spray twice, because you may not get even coverage with a single application.
Brands. In general, the difference between a store-brand sunscreen and more expensive name-brand sunscreen is not the effectiveness of the active ingredient, it is how elegant the formulation is. Both generally offer equally good protection.
Babies. Dermatologists suggest using sunscreen at the age of 6 months or older, though you could use a physical blocker without chemical ingredients on even younger infants, as it tends to be less irritating to sensitive skin. But the best protection for babies is to avoid sun exposure altogether.
How to Use Sunscreen Properly
No matter what sunscreen you choose, it will be effective only if you use it properly and consistently:
· It takes time for sunscreen to be absorbed into the top layers of the skin, so if you are using a chemical blocker, apply it 20 minutes before going outside.
· Use sunscreen even on overcast days (UV rays can still pass through clouds).
· One ounce, about the size of a shot glass, is the right amount of sunscreen for an average-sized adult.
· Apply sunscreen to the entire body—don’t forget the ears and lips. You can put sunscreen directly on the lips or use a lip balm with SPF.
· Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or every hour if you are sweating or in the water. “Water-resistant” sunscreen does not offer any advantage—you still need to reapply it every hour.
· Damaging rays can penetrate car windows, so use sunscreen even if you are just driving or running errands.
If you are using sunscreen correctly, you should not get sunburned; if you do burn, it means you are not putting enough on or are not reapplying it frequently enough, or your sunscreen has expired (you should buy new sunscreen every year). One sign that you are using enough is that you will go through several bottles over the course of a summer; one bottle should not last an entire season.
Is Sunscreen Safe?
There is much misinformation about the potential for sunscreen to cause harm inside the body. People worry that the zinc or titanium nanoparticles penetrate into the bloodstream, or that the chemical blockers are absorbed into the skin and cause hormone imbalances. Neither is true. The American Academy of Dermatology says there is no evidence behind either of those claims, and the risk of not wearing sunscreen far exceeds that of any theoretical damage inside the body.
With proper protection from harmful UV rays, you can enjoy a healthy summer now—and prevent skin cancer in the future.