As summer approaches and the weather warms up, many people will be spending more time outdoors. Although getting outside and staying active is good for your health, it’s important to be careful of long-term sun exposure, which can lead to a common yet dangerous type of skin cancer called melanoma. Luckily, one of the best ways to protect yourself from melanoma is to simply wear sunscreen and reapply throughout the day.
Sunscreen use is extremely important regardless of gender, age, and race. It’s a common misconception that those with darker skin tones do not need to wear sunscreen because of their higher levels of melanin, which provides some level of natural UV protection. However, even those with darker skin are susceptible to wrinkles, sunspots, and melanoma and should always wear sunscreen.
There are several types of sunscreen, and they all claim to protect the skin against the sun’s harmful rays. But what is the difference between these products, and which are the most effective?
First, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVA rays can pass through windows or glass and can prematurely age the skin, while UVB rays are known to cause sunburns but cannot pass through windows or glass. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to skin damage and melanoma, so blocking both is essential.
The AAD also recommends using a water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. A sunscreen’s SPF count indicates how long your skin is protected against UV radiation, with an SPF of 30 meaning that it would take 30 times longer for skin to burn while wearing sunscreen than it would without any sunscreen at all. And while SPF 30 protects your skin against roughly 97 percent of the sun’s harmful rays, SPFs of 50 and 100 filter out 98 and 99 percent of rays, respectively. Although no sunscreen can filter out 100 percent of rays, using sunscreen with high SPFs will provide the best protection. Additionally, the difference between 97 percent and 98 percent protection might seem minimal, but SPF 30 allows 50 percent more UV radiation to hit your skin than SPF 50.
Sunscreens with SPFs lower than 30 may not provide long-term, adequate protection against the harmful effects of the sun. Any sunscreens with SPFs below 15 are required by the FDA to provide a warning label indicating that they do not provide adequate protection against skin cancer.
While there are many types of sunscreens on the market, the AAD does not recommend a certain type over another. Any sunscreen that you will use properly and consistently is recommended, so it’s best to find a sunscreen that suits your lifestyle and preferences. Some of the most popular types of sunscreen on the market include:
It’s imperative that children are well-protected from the sun. Often, children’s skin is incredibly sensitive and easily burnt. Setting your child up with proper sunscreen habits not only encourages them to maintain the behavior in the long term but also prevents early skin damage that can make your child more susceptible to melanoma later on.
When choosing a sunscreen for your child, look for one that does not contain any ingredients that are known to irritate their skin, and make sure to patch test the formula before applying it more broadly.
There are limited studies surrounding the safety of sunscreen for children under six months, so it is not typically recommended for parents to apply a lot of sunscreen to newborns and infants. Instead, parents of young babies should keep them out of the sun whenever possible. If this is unavoidable, using small amounts of baby-safe sunscreen on exposed areas of the body is also okay.
Sunscreens are often classified in terms of their active ingredients. While there is an ongoing debate about whether physical or chemical sunscreens are more effective at protecting your skin, both have been proven to be effective when used as directed. Some sunscreens may also use a combination of physical or chemical ingredients, providing the benefits of both individual types.
According to the AAD, chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays. They contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. These formulations tend to be easier to rub into the skin without leaving a white residue. Physical sunscreens work like a shield, sitting sit on the surface of your skin and deflecting the sun’s rays. They contain the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Opt for this sunscreen if you have sensitive skin.
Because UVA rays can penetrate windows and glass, dermatologists recommend using sunscreen every day of the year, not just during the warmer months. Additionally, the sun can still project harmful UVA and UVB rays even when it’s cold or cloudy, so it’s necessary to take precautions year-round.
Sunscreen is most protective when applied 30 minutes before going outdoors and should be reapplied at least every two hours, but even more frequently if you are swimming or sweating. When applying, you should cover all visible parts of your body, including your feet, neck, ears, and scalp. The AAD recommends applying approximately one ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) of sunscreen to your body each time you apply, including when using spray sunscreen.
You should also pay attention to the expiration date on your sunscreen and stop using the product if it is out of date. Using expired sunscreen can decrease your level of protection, as the expired ingredients may stop working as intended and can break down. If no date is provided on the bottle, a general rule of thumb is to discard old sunscreen three years after purchase.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and develops when ultraviolet radiation from the sun or tanning beds triggers mutations that cause tumor growth. Melanomas often look like moles on the skin, which means that they’re easy to miss if you’re not paying attention. For this reason, it’s important to inspect your skin on a regular basis and alert your provider of any new moles or concerning spots.
For the best protection, sunscreen should be used in addition to things like staying indoors or under shade from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm, when the sun is the strongest, or wearing protective clothing that covers most of your exposed skin and includes UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor). Hats are also essential for protecting your scalp (an area that is hard to inspect for moles), and sunglasses can shield your eyes from conditions worsened by sun exposure, including cataract changes and macular degeneration.
Even if you do not burn easily, you should still wear sunscreen and minimize your exposure to the sun. Its harmful rays can do damage to your skin without any outward warning signs, and it may be too late before you notice serious consequences. Visit our blog, “Moles and Melanoma: Do you know your Skin Cancer ABCDEs” for more information, and contact your Atrius Health provider if you have concerns about a new or changing mole.