Exposure to the sun’s sizzling rays can cause more than just an ugly sunburn. Before you venture out this summer, take note of these expert tips on how to safely enjoy your fun in the sun.
Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock—which isn’t a bad spot considering the subject matter—you’ve heard that sun protection is crucial in the fight against wrinkly, crinkly, reptilian skin. But the implications of sun exposure are far more serious than a few laugh lines. According to the National Cancer Institute, exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and various tanning devices may increase the risk of melanoma—the most serious type of skin cancer. With the American Cancer Society’s Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month upon us, we’ve put together a head-to-toe guide on protecting your skin from the damaging and potentially deadly summer sun.
First Defense: Understanding UV Radiation
Skin experts agree: to lower your risk of skin cancer, protection is the best form of prevention. And when it comes to protecting your skin, a daily dose of sunscreen is your first line of defense from harmful UV rays—even on days when you’re cloistered inside your office or home.
“Although the inflammation and redness produced by a sunburn are the most obvious change, it is what is happening within the skin that is the most worrisome,” explains board-certified dermatologist and Mohs skin cancer surgeon Jennifer Linder, MD.
According to Dr. Linder, everyday use of sunscreen is imperative because both UVB and UVA rays cause dermal damage and both are linked to skin cancers. Think of UVB rays as “burning” and UVA as “aging,” suggests Dr. Linder. “UVB rays primarily effect the top layers of the skin.” Besides leading to sunburn, UVB exposure increases free radicals that eat away at the skin’s natural antioxidants making it vulnerable to DNA damage. “It is this UV-induced DNA damage that is the number one cause of skin cancers,” she says.
UVB’s longer wave cousin, UVA, travels deeper into the skin’s dermal layers causing support structures such as collagen and elastin to break down. UVA also increases free radical damage and decreases the body’s natural defense mechanisms against premature aging. “Although UVA is thought to play a less significant role in carcinogenesis compared to UVB, it is still responsible for approximately 20% of the sun’s cancer-causing effects,” says Dr. Linder.
And here’s the kicker: UVA rays can penetrate glass and clothing—that means when you’re driving, sitting next to a window or lounging in that shady spot under an umbrella.
In other words, slather up.
Cover Up: Making Sound Choices
The next hurdle is choosing an effective, broad-spectrum sunscreen (meaning it contains UVB and UVA protection) and remembering to take extra precautions when you spend time outdoors. Dr. Linder—who also heads up product development at PCA Skin, a clinical skincare line based in Scottsdale—says not to be mislead by a high SPF number and instead, study the ingredients.
“The tricky thing is that some manufacturers will label a sunscreen product broad-spectrum when it truly is not,” she warns. “Certain ingredients cover a very small amount of the UVA spectrum but this does not make it broad-spectrum.” To be an effective UVA barrier, a product must contain zinc oxide, avobenzone, titanium dioxide or ecamsule (aka, Mexoryl). Common UVB-warding ingredients include homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, oxybenzone and padimate O.
And don’t be fooled by a high SPF. The SPF (sun protection factor) indicates only the product’s UVB protection and does not increase proportionately with the SPF number. “A SPF of 15 protects from 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 protects from 97% of UVB rays and SPF 60 protects from 98% of UVB radiation,” Dr. Linder explains. “Personally, I would rather a patient wear a SPF 15 daily, rather than a SPF 70 only when they are outside.”
When you do head out for your day in the sun, regardless of the SPF, reapply sunscreen every two hours and gear up with extra protection such as full-coverage sunglasses with a high UV coating level, a wide-brimmed hat and water sportswear with built-in UV protection. Also consider pre-washing clothes in a colorless dye such as SunGuard, which increases a material’s SPF.
Skin Soothers: Caring for Sun-Damaged Skin
If you do find yourself with a searing sunburn, Dr. Linder suggests taking 800 mg of Ibuprofen every 4 hours to reduce the severity of the burn and calm inflammation. She also recommends products containing a combination of red and brown algae, aloe vera and hydrocortisone to reduce the symptoms of sunburn and soothe discomfort.
In terms of caring for the long-term effects of sun exposure, the skincare and aesthetics industries are practically buckling at the seams with options. But Dr. Linder stops short at a simple way of saving money on diminishing long-term damage: don’t tan. If you absolutely must be tan she suggests using a self-tanner. And to lessen the appearance of sun damage, a series of superficial chemical peels and products with Hydroquinone can be effective under a skincare professional’s care.
Learn to love that skin you’re in by giving it a loving dose of daily protection and have a healthy, safe and sunburn-free summer!