Summertime is practically synonymous with outdoor fun. Exposure to the summer sun can be a good thing, as it is a primary source of vitamin D. But it is easy to forget that too much exposure to the sun without protection can result in sunburn and other skin problems, including skin cancer. Using sunscreen can help protect the whole family from the consequences of harmful radiation.
Effects of Sunlight
Sunlight emits two types of radiation that are harmful: ultraviolet A (UVA) rays and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Exposure to UVA rays can cause wrinkles and age spots, and they can also suppress the immune system. UVB rays are the burning rays of the sun that can lead to sunburns through prolonged exposure. UVA rays can pass through a windowpane, while UVB rays do not. Excessive exposure to both types of radiation can put someone at risk for developing skin cancer.
Sunscreen is a type of medication that is applied topically to skin exposed to the sun. A good sunscreen product must have ingredients that protect the skin from both UVA and UVB rays, but sunscreen typically only guards against sunburn-causing UVB rays. The product’s ability to protect the skin by deflecting the sun’s burning rays is determined by the sun protection factor (SPF). A sunscreen’s SPF ranges from 2 to 50 and is displayed on the packaging. Applying a sunscreen of SPF 15 will allow a person who would normally turn red from the sun’s exposure after 10 minutes to take 15 times longer to burn than the initial time (10 x 15), or 150 minutes. The greater the SPF factor, higher is the protection from UVB rays. An SPF of 15 blocks around 93 percent of UVB, while an SPF of 30 blocks around 97 percent of UVB. However, no sunscreen product can provide 100 percent protection.
Dermatologists recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen product, which is one that provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays. No matter what a person’s skin type, it is important to use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. For fairer skin, a higher SPF of 30 to 50 is required. Water-resistant and waterproof sunscreens are available that can be applied while swimming or sweating. A waterproof sunscreen lasts up to 80 minutes in water, whereas a water-resistant one should be applied again after 40 minutes in the water.
Sunscreen products come in many forms including ointments, lotions, creams, gels, sprays, and wax sticks. Choosing a form of sunscreen is the individual’s preference. Although creams or lotions are better for the face and dry skin, gels work better in hairy areas such as the scalp or a man’s chest, and sticks are easy to apply around the eyes. Special sunscreens should be used for sensitive skin and babies. If an infant is older than 6 months, a lotion sunscreen with SPF of 15 or higher should be used. Avoid using sunscreen on infants younger than 6 months. For sensitive skin, use a product containing titanium dioxide, which chemically blocks the sun’s physical rays and does not absorb into the skin.
Sunscreens must be applied liberally, to all exposed areas and especially the face, ears, hands, and arms about 30 minutes prior to going outside. The lips should be protected an hour before sun exposure using a lip balm with sunscreen. Instructions on the package will also be helpful. It is important to reapply sunscreen every one to two hours because it wears off easily. In a bathing suit, an average adult must apply about nine half-teaspoon size portions as follows:
• one half-teaspoon portion for the face and neck
• one half-teaspoon portion for each arm and shoulder
• one half-teaspoon portion for the front and back of the torso
• two half-teaspoon portions for each leg
Kids need extra sun protection because their skin is sensitive, so sunscreen must be applied frequently and generously when they are out in the sun. Spray-type sunscreens are easy to administer, but keep the bottle close to the body while spraying. It is recommended that kids wear a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 (or higher) regardless of the skin type. Waterproof sunscreens are better for lasting protection while swimming, as water causes the sun’s rays to intensify due to reflection. It is a good idea to reapply after coming out of the water even if waterproof sunscreen has been used.
Remember the “slip, slop, slap” rule:
• Slip on a shirt
• Slop on sunscreen
• Slap on a hat
When looking for a sunscreen product, make sure the label contains the following broad-spectrum ingredients:
These active ingredients work by absorbing or scattering the UV radiation. However, this results in easy breakdown of the product: the SPF decreases and the effect is lost. Therefore, sunscreen needs to be reapplied every couple of hours. Avobenzone is one such ingredient that breaks down on exposure to UV radiation.
Recently, there has been focus on improvement of sunscreens, to develop formulations that are more resilient in light, or photostable, by adding other UV filters or ingredients. This results in a product that can absorb or scatter UV radiation for a longer period of time. Adding ingredients such as ecamsule, octocrylene and oxybenzone makes ingredients like avobenzone more resistant to sunlight. Research has shown that a photostabilized sunscreen product offers better protection when compared to a photo unstable product.
The FDA’s Role
Sunscreens are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as over-the-counter drugs. Due to new FDA regulations, sunscreen labels are changing. Manufacturers are not allowed to label sunscreen products as “all-day protection” or “sun block.” Products are also required to carry alert statements such as “limit sun exposure,” “wear protective clothing,” or “using sunscreens can reduce the risk of skin aging, skin cancer, and other harmful effects of the sun.”
The FDA also requires that all sunscreen products be stable and maintain their original strength for at least three years.
Being Sun Smart
You and your family can enjoy basking in the sun, but know how to protect yourself from its harmful effects. Remember to limit exposure when the sun’s radiation is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Also keep in mind the “slip, slop, slap” rule:
Slip on a shirt
Slop on a sunscreen
Slap on a hat
Taking care to avoid the negative health effects of sun can make your life a little brighter.