Sun safety tips and tricks

Summer is fast approaching, and people are preparing for a season of outdoor activities, sports events and barbecues.

Now also is the time to start thinking about protecting you and your family’s skin from increased UV exposure (sunlight). Here are some tips and tricks for keeping your summer sunburn-free.

First, take a look at what’s in your home. Many of us have outdated personal care products sitting in the cabinets, especially sunscreen. Look at the label and be sure it has not expired. Chemical-based sunscreens begin to lose their potency, especially if left in a hot car for days at a time. It’s worth getting a new batch of sunscreen every year to ensure the best protection.

Chemical vs. physical blocking sunscreens: Yes there is a difference. There are physical blocking sunscreens like zinc and titanium, which reflect the sun’s rays, commonly referred to as mineral sunscreen. Or there are chemical sunscreens, which absorb light and convert it into heat on the skin.

Both provide excellent protection and bottle labels should indicate the sun protection factor (SPF) rating. Typically, this ranges from 15-100. The higher the SPF, the higher the concentration and better protection offered.

I generally recommend SPF 50 or higher because it tends to be more forgiving than SPF 30 in the case of water activities and sweating. All chemical sunscreens should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure since they need to bind to the skin first. Reapply all sunscreens every two hours for best protection.

Speaking of application, be sure to apply sunscreen appropriately. Studies show that most people underapply sunscreen. Experts generally recommend using the teaspoon rule of sunscreen application.

This means using one teaspoon of sunscreen on each of the following body areas: Right arm, left arm, face and neck. Use two teaspoons on each of the following body areas: Front and back of torso (combined), right leg and left leg.

For spray sunscreens I typically recommend applying one pass of spray on each body site and allow to dry, then repeat for a total of three passes. Be sure to not spray directly on the face and ensure that you are applying in a well-ventilated area to avoid inhalation.

When using a chemical sunscreen consider what you are doing that day. For environmental purposes, chemical sunscreens should be avoided when in the ocean as they can damage coral reefs; in particular octinoxate and oxybenzone should be avoided. Consider using mineral sunscreen with zinc and titanium as an alternative when on the beach.

It is also important to use mineral sunscreen with zinc or titanium for children younger than 8 and avoid chemical sunscreens. Studies are identifying risks regarding hormone changes and chemical sunscreens. The jury is out on the long-term safety of chemical ingredients and it is too early to determine the risk benefit ratio of these products. If you prefer a more natural approach to sun protection, then your best bet is to stick with zinc and titanium-based options.

Second, sun protective clothing is a must when spending extended periods of time outdoors. Tight weave clothing, broad brimmed hats (4 inches or wider), long sleeves, long pants and shoes with good coverage are easy to implement. Choosing shaded areas for activities and avoiding peak exposure hours (10 a.m.-4 p.m.) are good strategies to avoid sunburn.

The myth of the base tan

I commonly hear patients going to the tanning booth to brown up their skin. I can’t emphasize enough that any tanned skin is damaged skin. A tan only provides a protection of about 3-5 SPF. It is not an effective replacement for the preceding sun protection strategies.

Not only it is damaging but also UV exposure in a tanning booth is more intense than natural UV solar exposure and it is severely damaging to your collagen causing wrinkling and discoloration. Skip the tanning bed if you want a tanned look and check out self-tanning products and spray tan parlors.

Sun protection has the benefit of protecting against skin cancers and premature aging of the skin but does come with health risks that one might not realize. Vitamin D is synthesized by a process that occurs when our skin is exposed to sunlight, thusly, vitamin D deficiency is more common in individuals who are adherent to sunscreen recommendations.

The best way to curb this risk is to ensure you are getting at least 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun a few times per week. Also, taking daily vitamin D3 supplements containing 200 IU up to age 50, 400 IU up to age 60 and 600 IU for older than age 70 will reduce the risk of deficiency 1.

Sun exposure is necessary for our health and well-being, but it also comes with risks. Taking appropriate precautions as noted above will help reduce your risk of skin cancer and advanced aging. I hope you all have a healthy and happy summer in the sun.

1. Robinson JK. Sun Safety. JAMA Dermatol. 2018;154(3):380. doi:10.1001/jamadermatol.2017.5256