Back in the days when coconut oil was the suntan lotion of choice, many of us experienced sunburns beyond “bad”. I recall several of my high school friends fell asleep under at-home sun lamps. Their red and swollen faces were a painful reminder that too much ultraviolet exposure was never good for anyone.
Thank goodness most people are far more careful about sun exposure today. It is widely known that cumulative sun exposure can cause skin cancer. More dangerous are repeated episodes of severe sunburns, usually before age 18, as that can result in melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) later in life.
The sun’s ultraviolet light (UV) has two main components that can damage skin cells and lead to skin cancer. UVB rays are the primary the cause of sunburn and most responsible for skin cancer. UVA rays also contribute to sunburn but generally cause skin damage that leads to tanning, skin-aging, and wrinkles. The best way to reduce the effect of sun exposure is the generous use of a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
Most commonly, sunscreens are rated by their sun protection factor (SPF) number which refers primarily to the amount of UVB protection it provides. The SPF is an approximate measure of the length of time the sun’s UV radiation would take to begin reddening the skin versus the amount of time without sunscreen. For example, if 10 min in the sun would normally redden your skin, a properly applied SPF15 sunscreen would allow you to stay in the sun without burning for approximately 150 minutes (15 times longer). To note, not all skin tones are the same, so the SPF is not applicable to every skin type.
The difference between sun protection factors is very little. SPF 15 blocks 93% of the UVB rays, while an SPF of 30 (twice the factor) blocks 97% of the UVB rays, and an SPF of 50 (over 3 times the SPF15 factor) blocks 98% of the UVB rays. Purchasing anything over 50 SPF offers very little extra protection.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Apply an ounce (two tablespoons) 30 minutes prior to sun exposure. Take time to put it on correctly and cover all exposed skin. Remember, no sunscreen is completely waterproof so re-apply every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating.
Broad spectrum sunscreen can protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. In addition, barrier clothing such as a hat and shirt or a cover up can also provide sun protection. However, not all clothing provide the same security. It is important to choose outdoor clothing specifically designed to protect the skin. The ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) will appear on the label. Loose fitting clothing will have generally have a tighter weave over skin-tight stretch fabric and is generally a better choice for extended time in the sun.
Have fun in the sun this spring but protect yourself and those you love! Skin cancers are the number one cause of cancer in the United States and are, also, the most preventable. Thankfully, parents today are more commonly seen applying generous amounts of sunscreen to their children than past generations. If we had known then what we know now, perhaps hunting for that deep-dark tan may not have been such a quest.