Summer Sun: The Good, the Bad, the SPF

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sun protectionLong, warm, sunny days are the hallmark of summer, when the sun’s warmth drives off all memory of winter. Summer is about spending time outside, whether at the beach with a book, working in the garden, or just eating lunch on a park bench. Exposure to sun makes us feel good and makes our bodies produce needed Vitamin D. Unfortunately, we also know that sunshine can damage our skin. So just what is the lowdown on sunshine and the sunscreens we use to protect ourselves?

Most of the skin changes on our face and hands that we associate with aging come from exposure to UVA and UVB waves in sunlight or from tanning booths. Age spots, wrinkles (other than creases from facial expressions), mottled pigmentation, telangiectasias (enlargement of blood vessels under the skin), as well as many tumors arise from sunbathing, whether intentional or not. Sun damage is often not apparent when we are young, but it is there nonetheless. Eventually the UV rays cause enough damage to our elastin skin fibers that the skin begins to stretch permanently rather than springing back into place, leading to sagging and wrinkles. UVA and UVB waves penetrate skin cells and cause changes in the cells’ DNA, which can lead to skin cancer. Sunburns in particular raise the risk of melanoma, the most dangerous type of skin cancer.

So, are we off the hook if we use sunscreens? They certainly help, but we would have to live in the dark to avoid all damage. And using just any sunscreen won’t do the trick. It is important to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, meaning it protects from UVA and UVB rays. Look for at least one of the following ingredients for significant UVA protection: avobenzone, ecamsule (Mexoryl), titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. Remember that glass does not block UVA radiation, so it is important to use a sunscreen even when driving in the car with the windows up, or sitting near a window.

The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating refers to a sunscreen’s ability to block UVB radiation. The National Institute of Health (NIH) recommends using at least SPF 15, while the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD)  recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 on a daily basis throughout the year, even on cloudy days. Don’t be fooled into thinking the SPF is how much longer you can stay in the sun, which also depends on the time of day, altitude, season, and distance from the equator.

Both the NIH and the AAD recommend avoiding exposure when the sun is strongest (10 am to 4 pm in the summer or whenever your shadow is shorter than you are). They also suggest wearing sunglasses with UV protection plus protective clothing and a hat. Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after getting wet or toweling off. No sunscreen is actually waterproof, but the ones that claim they are last between 40 to 80 minutes. Always reapply when you get out of the water. Remember that sunscreen’s effectiveness lasts about three years, so recycle the old containers.

At this point it feels like much of the fun has been drained out of summer, but in reality, everything we do involves balancing risks. Many of us will still find ourselves by a pool or on a beach this summer, and we can reduce the risk of damage by using sunscreen and being sensible about our exposure.

By Rebecca Taggart


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