Say Yes to Sunscreen and No to Sunburn

Young African American girl smiling while applying sunscreen at the beach.

School is out, and summer fun has begun. Between pool days and beach trips, people will be outside enjoying nature and soaking up the bright summer sun. While spending time outside has positive health benefits, the sun can be a short- and long-term enemy.

One in five Americans will develop skin cancer, according to estimates by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Avoiding ultraviolet light — a risk factor for all types of skin cancer — could prevent more than 3 million skin cancer cases annually.

However, it is not always easy to avoid these harmful rays, especially during summer months, which is why sunscreen is so important. Lauren Kole, M.D., assistant professor in the UAB Medicine Department of Dermatology, shares her best practices for sunscreen use.

What to Buy

When choosing a sunscreen, Dr. Kole suggests starting by looking at the sun protection factor. The AAD recommends using a 30 SPF or higher. No sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays, but 30 SPF blocks about 97% of them. It is also recommended to look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen. These sunscreens help protect against both UVA rays, which cause premature aging in the skin, and UVB rays, which cause sunburn. Additionally, exposure to both UVA and UVB rays may lead to skin cancers in the future. Since most outdoor activities include sweating and/or getting in water, it is useful to look for a sunscreen that is water-resistant.

Most sunscreen comes in one of four basic forms: spray, cream, gel, or stick. Each type has its own benefits that consumers should consider:

  • Sprays are currently the most popular type due to the ease of application. But people rarely apply enough, applying only about 25-50% of the recommended amount needed. Also, sprays are harder to control around the face, making it harder to prevent inhaling or ingesting the sunscreen, which can be harmful to the user.
  • Creams may take longer to apply but can be applied to almost everywhere on one’s body, including the face. People tend to rub in and apply creams slightly more than they do when applying spray sunscreen.
  • Sticks are not realistic to use for one’s entire body but are perfect for safely applying sunscreen to the facial area, including the lips. Many facial sunscreens also include moisturizing agents and anti-aging ingredients, such as antioxidants. 
  • Gels are not as common as sprays and creams but prove to be the most effective on hairy areas of the body. For people who are not wearing a hat or head covering, gel sunscreen is a good option to help protect the scalp. Dr. Kole adds that powder sunscreens are becoming more common and are a great option to use where the hair is parted. 

Dr. Kole stresses the importance of making sure that the sunscreen you choose is approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Two ingredients, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are considered safe and effective as sunscreen, while two others, aminobenzoic acid and trolamine salicylate, are not considered safe or e­ffective as sunscreen by the FDA. All sunscreen containers are required to show an expiration date. If there is no date, the product should be considered to be expired three years after purchase.

How to Use It

A quality sunscreen cannot be fully effective if it is not correctly applied. Dr. Kole suggests applying sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside. This allows the sunscreen time to fully absorb into the skin and form a protective barrier. The national recommendation to reapply sunscreen is every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating. Follow the sunscreen directions regarding how often to reapply. 

Areas one cannot see or reach are commonly missed spots. Have someone else help apply sunscreen to hard-to-reach areas like the upper back, or make sure those areas are covered.

Do not replace sunscreen with tanning oil or lotion. Most of these lotions do not have the recommended SPF for maximum UV protection. Even when applied along with sunscreen, some tanning oils and lotions can counteract the protective ingredients in sunscreen.

After-Sun Best Practices

In addition to sunscreen, other sun protection best practices include wearing coverings – such as hats and sunglasses – and being extra careful about applying sunscreen when in direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

Dr. Kole also notes that sunscreen is not recommended by the FDA for infants under six months old. All children at least six months old should wear protective clothing and sunscreen. Parents should try to keep infants under six months of age out of the sun during peak hours and speak with their pediatrician before applying sunscreen.

After sun exposure, Dr. Kole suggests taking cool baths to reduce the heat, applying moisturizers, and drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Hydrocortisone cream may be applied to sunburns to ease discomfort.

People should also avoid using products that end in “cain”, because they will not help the burn. These products only reduce pain and will not treat the underlying skin damage, and overuse of these products can have side effects.

With any sunburn, avoid the sun while skin heals, and be sure to cover the sunburn every time you head outdoors.

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