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6 things you need to know about sunscreen

| Healthy You | Aging Well | Wellness

mom applies sunscreen to a toddler at the beach

What can you do to avoid a sunburn? Try these tips from a skin expert.

Do you remember your last bad sunburn?

According to Christina Lyons, MD, a PeaceHealth dermatologist in Bellingham, Washington, “Every patient who comes into my office seems to have a memorable experience of having a bad sunburn.”

Too much sun can ruin an otherwise good outing. Even worse, evidence supports it can lead to skin damage, premature aging and skin cancer. The good news is that “sunburns are easily avoidable. Our bodies use sun to make vitamin D, but the same UV that makes vitamin D also causes damage that can lead to skin cancer and skin aging,” she says.

You probably already know sunscreen is a must. But with all the sunscreen choices available today—stick, cream, lotion, spray—how do you choose?

Dr. Lyons offers these six tips on choosing and using sunscreen:

  1. Broad-spectrum. “Be sure your sunscreen blocks both UVA and UVB rays.” Think of “B” for “burning rays” and “A” for “aging rays” as a memory trick. Both can contribute to skin cancer, so protecting broadly is a must.
  2. Mineral-based. “There’s been a lot in the press lately about a recent medical study showing that some chemicals from sunscreen are absorbed into the bloodstream through the skin. The big takeaway is that more studies are needed to fully understand what this means for our health. While we wait for new research looking into the safety of these chemicals, mineral sunscreens are an excellent choice. Mineral-based sunscreens are those that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their primary ingredients. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on the surface of the skin and aren't absorbed. They are generally recognized as safe and effective, and they are safe for coral reefs too.”
  3. Aim for at least SPF 30 or higher. Studies show that higher number SPF sunscreens are more effective at preventing sunburn, so the higher the SPF number the better.
  4. Lay it on thick. “Most of us typically apply only 1/4 to 1/2 of the amount of sunscreen we are supposed to use to get the right protection. Unfortunately, I find the sprays are usually not as effective. But if you must use a spray, make sure to apply until the skin is dripping wet then rub it in. There also was a study recently that some of the sunscreen sprays have benzene contamination. So I usually recommend using the mineral-based sunscreen lotions as the safest option.” For creams and lotions, it should take a full ounce to cover your entire body. If you haven’t gone through your bottle of sunscreen at the end of the summer you likely aren’t using enough.
  5. Cover ALL areas that will be exposed to the sun. Remember areas such as the tops of your feet, neck, tips of your ears, and the part in your hair. They often get forgotten. Putting it on before your bathing suit will help you make sure you are well covered.
  6. Reapply every two hours. If you’re swimming or sweating, you’ll want to reapply sunscreen more often because it washes off and loses its effectiveness. The bottle will tell you the length of time it is effective in the water. This is typically either 40 minutes or 80 minutes.

Sunscreen is just part of a good sun protection strategy. Here are other important things to note about keeping your skin safe in the summer:

  • Sunscreen should NOT be used on babies under six months old. “Keep them indoors or covered and in the shade.”
  • People with darker skin tones should wear sunscreen too.
  • For children and anyone with sensitive skin, Dr. Lyons recommends a mineral-based fragrance-free sunscreen.
  • Cloudy or sunny…doesn’t matter. Much of the damaging UV rays still penetrate through clouds. Use sun protection any time you expect to be outside for prolonged periods.
  • Wear sunglasses—especially around water, snow and at high altitudes. (Check these tips for choosing your shades.)
  • Avoid sunscreen/insect repellant combination formulas.
  • Don't rely on your cosmetic alone to offer adequate sun protection.
  • There are other ways beyond sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun, such as:
    • Stay inside when the sun is at its most intense—from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.
    • Seek the shade.
    • Cover up with long sleeves/pants/a broad-brimmed hat (4-inch+ brim).
    • Wear sun-protective clothing with a UPF rating.

With a little planning, you can make your last bad sunburn your last—ever.