Between pool days and beach trips, people are outside enjoying nature and soaking in the bright summer sun. While spending time outside has positive health benefits, the sun can be a short- and long-term enemy.
One in five Americans will develop skin cancer, according to estimates by the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Avoiding ultraviolet light – a risk factor for all types of skin cancer – could prevent more than 3 million skin cancer cases annually.
However, it is not always easy to avoid these harmful rays, especially during summer months, which is why using sunscreen is important. Bryan Combs, assistant professor in the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Nursing, and Dr. Lauren Kole, assistant professor in the UAB Department of Dermatology, share their best practices for sunscreen use.
What to buy
When picking your sunscreen, Combs suggests starting by looking at the sun protection factor. The AAD recommends using a 30 SPF or higher. No sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays, but 30 SPF blocks about 97%. Also, look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen. These help protect against both UVA rays, which cause premature aging in the skin, and UVB rays, which cause sunburn. Kole adds that exposure to UVA and UVB may lead to skin cancers. Since most outdoor activities include sweating and/or getting in water, it is useful to look for water-resistant formulas as well.
Then consider what type of sunscreen is best suited for you. Most sunscreen comes in one of four basic forms – spray, cream, gel or stick – and each type has its own application benefits consumers should consider.
- Sprays are the most popular type because of the ease of application; but people rarely apply enough, applying between 25-50% of the recommended amount. Additionally, sprays are harder to control around the face, making it harder to prevent inhaling or ingesting the sunscreen, which can be harmful to the user.
- Creams may take longer to apply but can be applied to almost everywhere on the body, including the face. People tend to rub in and apply creams slightly more than they do with spray sunscreen.
- Sticks are not realistic to use for the entire body but are perfect for safely applying sunscreen to the facial area, including the lips. Many facial sunscreens include moisturizing agents and anti-aging ingredients such as antioxidants.
- Gels are not as common as sprays and creams but prove to be the most effective around hairy areas. For people who are not wearing a hat or head covering, gel sunscreen is a good option to help protect the scalp. Kole said powder sunscreens are becoming more common and are a great option to use on hairy places.
Combs emphasizes the importance of making sure a sunscreen selection is approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Two ingredients – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – are considered to be safe and effective for sunscreen use, while two others – aminobenzoic acid and trolamine salicylate – are not considered safe or effective by the FDA for sunscreen use.
In 2020, FDA research on sunscreen absorption levels identified six active chemical sunscreen ingredients that were absorbed into the skin beyond the FDA’s threshold of concern, with some remaining in a person’s system for weeks afterward. These are included in a list of active sunscreen ingredients the FDA needs to study more before deeming whether they are safe and effective. The list includes cinoxate, dioxybenzone, ensulizole, homosalate, meradimate, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, padimate O, sulisobenzone, oxybenzone and avobenzone. The FDA encourages Americans to continue using sunscreen as a protective measure.
How to use it
- A quality sunscreen is fully effective only when correctly applied. Combs suggests applying sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside. This allows the sunscreen time to fully absorb into the skin and form a protective barrier. The national recommendation to reapply sunscreen is every two hours; also reapply after swimming or excessive sweating. Follow the sunscreen directions regarding how often to reapply.
- Areas a person cannot see or reach are commonly missed spots. Have someone else help apply sunscreen to hard-to-reach areas like the upper back, or make sure those areas are covered.
- Do not replace sunscreen with tanning oil or lotion. Most of these lotions will not have near the recommended SPF for maximum UV protection. Even when applied with sunscreen, some tanning oils and lotions can counteract the protective ingredients.
- In addition to sunscreen, other sun protection best practices include wearing coverings such as hats and sunglasses, and being diligent about applying sunscreen before going into direct sunlight between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
For more summer safety tips, click here.
After sun best practices
After sun exposure, Kole suggests taking cool baths to reduce the heat, applying moisturizers and drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration. Hydrocortisone cream may be applied to sunburns to ease discomfort.
Combs suggests staying away from products ending in “cain” because they will not help the burn. These products only reduce pain and will not treat underlying skin damage: Overuse of these products can have side effects.
With any sunburn, avoid the sun while your skin heals, and be sure to cover the sunburn every time you head outdoors.
This story originally appeared on the UAB News website.