Memorial Day and the unofficial start of summer are around the corner, and it’s already sizzling hot in some states. So, it’s time to up your sun protection game. We know you’ve been wearing SPF all year (right?), but it requires extra thought when summer comes and we tend to be outdoors frequently in more direct sunlight.
As a dermatologist, I hear lots of myths and misconceptions about sun protection, so I put together this guide to what I wish everybody knew.
3 Sun Protection Myths
There are several misconceptions about sun protection that need to be corrected.
Sunscreen is all you need.
Wrong! Sunscreen alone does not protect your skin from the harm of UV radiation. Sunscreen should be just one part of your sun protection strategy, along with wearing protective clothing, not going outside at peak hours, and seeking shade whenever possible.
Darker skinned people don’t need sun protection.
Again, not correct. While fair-skinned people are more prone to sunburns and typical signs of sun damage, people with dark skin still get skin cancer! And darker skin is prone to skin discolorations which can be made worse by the sun.
Your skin ages just because you get older.
Oh, no, not at all. Much of skin “aging” is caused by sun damage. If you want to prevent wrinkles, the MOST important action you can take is to protect your skin from the sun. (Any doubts? Look at the skin on your bottom vs. your face). A tan is not evidence of healthy skin but rather your skin’s way of trying to protect itself from damage!
7 Sunscreen Rules
There is a lot to say on this topic and many controversies but let’s cover the basics so you can have the most up-to-date, science-based understanding.
1. Choose “Broad Spectrum” and SPF 15 (at least). Higher SPFs do offer more protection so dermatologists recommend SPF 30 or higher. Since sunscreens come in cream, gels, sprays, and sticks, choose one you like, because you’ll be more likely to use it. If you have acne, look for oil-free versions. If you use a spray, do not spray directly onto your face. Spray into your hand, and then apply it. Also try not to inhale it. (Although sprays are convenient, especially for kids, these are my least favorite sunscreens because it is hard not to inhale them and oily substances aren’t good for your lungs).
2. Know your ingredients. There are mineral sunscreens (zinc, titanium) which are often referred to as “organic”. They act to physically block the sun, and often do look more white on the skin although they have been made more cosmetically elegant in recent years, compared to the thick layers of white stuff that lifeguards would wear on their noses back in the day. They are the substances the FDA has recognized as “generally recognized as safe and effective”. This does NOT mean that other substances are harmful, it’s just that these are the only two that have been studied.
The other type of sunscreens are inorganic sunscreens containing chemicals which act like a sponge and absorb the sun’s rays. Recently they have received some bad press as one medical study showed they can be absorbed through the skin when used in high concentration. There was no evidence they produced harm, and the FDA counseled people to continue to use sunscreen. There have also been reports suggesting some may harm coral reefs, though with ocean warming damaging reefs it is uncertain what role, if any, sunscreen plays. This class of sunscreens is often combined with the organic ones and helps to give broad spectrum coverage. Consumer Reports recently released rankings for the best sunscreens of 2020.
3. Use enough! Most people put on too thin a layer — it is estimated that for your whole body you need 1 ounce, the volume of a full shot glass. For the face itself, use a nickel sized amount.
4. Apply it right, and often. Apply 15 minutes before going outside, so it can settle into your skin, and reapply every 2 hours! Even if your sunscreen says it is water-resistant, which applies to swimming or sweating, you still need to reapply every 2 hours.
5. Tinted sunscreens are especially helpful if you have brown discoloration on your skin, which darker skinned folks are prone to. They come in different tints so you can find the one that matches your skin tone, they’ll protect against discoloration, and they can act as a foundation as well!
6. Don’t forget your lips. There are special lip balms containing sunscreen and even colored, lipstick-like ones.
7. Get new sunscreen each summer. Sunscreens degenerate over time so check the expiration date, plus they can be affected by heat, so don’t leave them out in the sun or in a hot car.
Beyond Sunscreen: 3 Important Reminders
Clothing: Protective clothing should be your first, simplest line of defense. That means long sleeves and long pants when possible. Always wear a broad-brimmed hat — a baseball cap or visor does not count!
Not all clothing is sun protective; for instance, a T-shirt only has an SPF of 8! If you are going to be in prolonged sun, like hiking or boating, get a long-sleeved shirt with fabric labeled a SPF of 35 or more. Many are designed for swimming as well, which lets you go in and out of the water without needing to smear sunscreen all over your chest and back. And they come in cute styles these days, looking like swim coverups. There is also a wash you can use to make your clothes sun protective so you don’t have to buy any special gear!
Time of Day: The sun is strongest between 10 AM and 2 PM, so try to time activities before or after that. A bonus: Fewer crowds and you get to hear the birds sing early in the morning! Remember you still get UV radiation even on overcast days, so still practice “safe sun” even when it’s not sunny.
Shade: When possible, stay in the shade. This doesn’t necessarily work for active sports but if you are eating or reading, do so in the shade when possible. Beach or patio umbrellas are great!
And What About Vitamin D?
There is much controversy around sun protection and its effect on vitamin D. Although we know that sun exposure does stimulate vitamin D production, it’s not completely clear how much is needed and whether sunscreen impacts that. Additionally there is controversy on what a normal level of vitamin D should be and what role vitamin D plays in a host of medical issues. These are all hotly debated topics in the healthcare world!
We do know without a doubt that sun exposure causes skin cancer and so we want to prevent that. The general approach of the Dermatology community is to suggest people look to their diet to be sure they are getting enough vitamin D. Foods containing vitamin D include fish, especially fatty fish like tuna and salmon, egg yolks, and fortified foods like some dairy products, orange juice and cereals.
The Bottom Line
Sun protection is an essential part of taking care of your health. As people begin to emerge from COVID quarantines into more outdoor time in the summer sun it’s important to plan ahead and stick to the smart skin strategies I’ve outlined above.
About the Author
Dr. Holly Christman is a board-certified dermatologist. She treats lots of skin cancers. You’ll never catch her outside without her broad-brimmed hat and sunscreen!
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