According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. “Intermittent sun exposure in childhood and during adolescence may increase risk of skin cancer,” explains Dr. Rina Allawh, a dermatologist in King of Prussia, PA. “Even one blistering sunburn during childhood can nearly double a person’s chance of developing a melanoma later in life.” These are all reasons as to why daily sunscreen use and diligent sun protection is essential to prevent skin cancer and early skin aging. It’s not just beach days that can increase your risks either—it’s those daily dog walks or even just running to pick the kids up at school—that can add to the sun damage. Sunscreen should be a daily habit—a ritual as important and automatic as brushing your teeth.
Physical vs. Mineral Sunscreen Formulations
Sunscreens are available in two broad categories: physical/mineral and chemical sunscreens. “Chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone which absorb UV rays as they attempt to enter the skin,” explains Dr. Allawh. “Whereas physical sunscreens contain active mineral ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which scatter and reflect UV rays.” Mineral sunscreens do not get absorbed into the skin, they sit on top of the skin and deflect the UV rays. Chemical sunscreens require 15 minutes, some even 30 minutes, before they are fully absorbed into the skin and do their job of protecting from UV rays. Most importantly, choose a formulation that you’re going to wear. The best sunscreen is the one that you actually apply—not the one that sits in the bottle because you don’t care for the way it feels on your skin.
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How much SPF should you be applying?
“In general, it is recommended to apply a nickel-sized amount of sunscreen to the entire face. If you are at the beach or pool, it is recommended to apply one shot glass amount of sunscreen to the entire exposed skin,” advises Dr. Allawh. Wearing SPF during cloudy or overcast days is just as important as wearing it on sunny days. UV rays can still penetrate clouds and cause premature aging to the skin. The sun’s rays are strongest typically around 10am to 2pm and so it is recommended to be especially diligent about SPF and sun protection habits during this time of day. Dr. Allawh says: “A helpful tip I recommended to my patients: When your shadow is shorter than you are, it’s time to seek shade!”
What’s your number?
“My patients frequently ask me if a higher number SPF is better than a low-number,” says Dr. Allawh. “SPF, which is the sun protective factor, is important to pay close attention to, as it basically measures how much UV light a sunscreen can filter out.” An SPF of at least 30 is, to date, the recommendation of dermatologists. An SPF of 30 blocks 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. Explains Dr. Allawh: “Having a high-number SPF does not protect you for a longer period of time, but instead has slightly more coverage (98%+ coverage from the sun’s UVB rays). With that being said, no sunscreen in reality can block 100 percent of the sun’s UVB rays.” Many people purchase a higher SPF in hopes that they won’t need to reapply. But the reality is that a high-number SPF does not mean that you can spend additional time outdoors unprotected. “Reapplication is essential, especially after being in the water or after a vigorous workout,” says Dr. Allawh.
There is No Such Thing as a Healthy Tan
Sunscreen is best used as just one part of your sun-safety regimen. It’s crucial to practice other sun protective behaviors, too. Many people mistakenly assume sunscreen allows them the ability to sit endlessly in the sun. This is not true. Efforts should always be made to seek shade, avoid sun during peak hours, and to wear hats and other sun-protective clothing. Sunscreen should never be used as an opportunity to tan or sunbathe. Remember: There is no such thing as a safe—or healthy—tan. Every tan is a sign of damage to the skin. Here’s a hint: If you’re wearing sunscreen, and you’re still getting tan, you’re not being safe enough.