Updated July 2017 – Your skin’s number one enemy is the sun. It’s well established that ultraviolet rays from the sun (UVA & UVB) play a role in photoaging, which causes dark spots, uneven skin tone and wrinkles, as well as damaging the eyes, raising the risk of cataracts and, of course, skin cancer.
Melanoma rates have increased steadily for 30 years. While no group is impervious to the disease, statistics from the American Cancer Society indicate those with fairer skin are 20 times more likely to experience skin cancer in their lifetimes compared to those with darker complexions.
More worrisome, it is now one of the most common cancers diagnosed in young adults 30 and under, especially young women.
July is UV Safety Month, and to celebrate we’ve put together all you need to know to help keep your skin safe when you’re having fun in the sun!
1. Apply Sunscreen
Topical sunscreens are the easiest way to protect skin from UV damage. There are two major types: physical blockers and chemical blockers. As the names imply, physical blockers work by using fine mineral particles to physically scatter and reflect sunlight away from the skin, whereas chemical blockers work by using synthetic carbon compounds to chemically absorb UV rays.
Both have their pros and cons. Physical blockers don’t decompose under the sun so they are longer-lasting than chemical blockers, but tend to feel greasy and must be washed off manually. Chemical blockers often have a lighter, more wearable feel and are more amenable to use with cosmetics, yet may pose potential health risks and irritate sensitive skin.
Next, you’ll need to look at the SPF or Sun Protection Factor. SPF is a measurement comparing the time it would take to get a sunburn if you were or were not wearing sunscreen. For example, discounting other factors like light intensity, amount applied, and the individual’s skin type, this means if it takes 10 minutes to get burned without sunscreen, using an SPF 15 sunscreen would protect you 15 times longer, or for about 150 minutes.
A higher SPF does not equal a higher level of protection. Contrary to popular belief – and marketing claims – no sunscreen can block 100% of UVB rays. A sunscreen with SPF 15 blocks about 94% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks about 97%, and SPF 45 blocks about 98%. A product with at least SPF 30 and up to SPF 50 is a good choice. Anything above that provides little to no additional benefit, but can demand a higher price.
Broad-spectrum sunscreens, which can only be labeled as such after FDA testing, protects you from both UVA and UVB rays. These are the best and, in our opinion, only choice for maximum protection.
And word to the wise – don’t rely on cosmetics alone. Mineral makeups often offer broad-spectrum sun protection because many contain the physical blockers titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, but aren’t usually intended as a replacement for sunscreen. To ensure good coverage, apply sunscreen first and allow 30 minutes to absorb, then top with a high-quality protective mineral makeup like Colorescience or Jane Iredale.
2. Eat Your Fruits & Veggies
Who knew you could eat your way to natural sun protection? Research shows the same phytonutrients, called carotenoids, that impart a beautiful rich yellow and gold color to fruits & veggies can help increase the skin’s natural resistance to UV damage.
Another benefit? Carotenoids add a golden hue to your skin, making you look healthier, more attractive, and nicely tanned without enduring the health hazards of the tanning salon.
Other phytonutrients have antioxidant properties, including vitamin E, certain flavonoids, and the carotenoids beta-carotene, lycopene and lutein, which have been shown to have positive effects against UV damage such as inflammation, oxidative stress, breakdown of the extracellular matrix, and development of skin cancer.
Probiotic supplements have also been found to offer protective benefits against UV rays by protecting the skin’s immune function.
3. Apply MORE Sunscreen
Okay so this isn’t exactly a new tip, but it’s so important that it bears repeating: sunscreen only works if you use it correctly! If you’re wondering how much to apply, the simple answer is MORE! Most of us have learned the hard way that applying too little sunscreen, or not reapplying when necessary, can still result in a sunburn.
An easy guideline is to use a nickel-sized blob for your face, and at least one ounce for the exposed areas of the body. That’s two tablespoons for you cooks out there, or a full shot glass for you drinkers! Apply 30 minutes before sun exposure, and then the real key takeaway – REapply at least every two hours, more frequently if you’ve been sweating, swimming, or wiping your body.
This counts for waterproof or water-resistant formulas, too. They might have better staying power, but they still wear off. Use your watch, your phone, your fitness tracker, your egg timer, your best friend, your chatty Aunt Cathy, anything that will remind you to reapply.
4. Practice Safe Sun Habits
Try not to be in the sun during peak hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is the strongest. Overcast? Don’t be fooled. Up to 80% of harmful UV rays penetrate right through cloud cover, which is why you can still get sunburned on a cloudy day.
If you must be out, be sure to practice safe sun habits. Besides your skin, don’t forget to protect those peepers with wrap-around sunglasses that are clearly labeled as UV-blocking. Protect your perfect pout with a moisturizing lip balm that offers broad-spectrum protection with at least SPF 15. And though it might seem counterintuitive to cover up during summer, loose-fitting, dark-colored, long-sleeved clothes and a broad-brimmed hat that cover you up are more protective than even the best sunscreens.
The Bottom Line
Even when taking these precautions, there is no way to completely avoid UV exposure, and its negative effects are cumulative over a lifetime. Check yourself every month and get an annual skin exam. If you notice something strange on your skin, especially a growing bump, a changing mole, or a dry, scaly rough patch, see your doctor. When found and treated early, most skin cancers can be cured.
When it comes to sun safety, an ounce of protection really is worth a pound of cure, so cover up, slather on the sunscreen, and enjoy yourself in spite of the sun!
David H. Rahm, M.D. is the founder and medical director of The Wellness Center, a medical clinic located in Long Beach, CA. Dr. Rahm is also president and medical director of VitaMedica. Dr. Rahm is one of a select group of conventional medical doctors who have education and expertise in functional medicine and nutritional science. Over the past 20 years, Dr. Rahm has published articles in the plastic surgery literature and educated physicians about the importance of good peri-operative nutrition.