Almost everyone enjoys the look of a nice, dark tan. For decades, adding a warm glow to your skin has been synonymous with health, probably based on the fact that you receive some benefit from the sun’s synthesis of Vitamin D. However, once your skin cells have released the melanin that provides the browning coloration of a tan, damage may already have been done and you may be putting yourself at risk of contracting various types of skin cancer.
According to Dr. Michelle Walters from Associates in Dermatology in Hampton, a far healthier option is to limit your skin’s exposure to the damaging rays of the sun altogether. “No sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s rays,” she says. “Sun protective clothing is just as important as sunscreen and far less messy! Stay covered with shirts or rash guards containing UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Whenever possible, seek shade during midday (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) when the sun’s rays are the strongest.”
UPF is a relatively new standard used to measure the effectiveness of sun-protective fabrics. Unlike the more highly known SPF (sun protection factor) rating for sunscreens, UPF ratings do not measure how long it will take you to burn but how much of the sun’s rays are being blocked. For instance, an SPF of 15 generally means you can prolong your protection 15 times the time it normally takes your skin to burn. A UPF of 50 blocks out 49/50 (98 percent) of the ultraviolet rays when worn.
If your skin must be exposed to the sun, Walters suggests three key factors to look for in a sunscreen: one that provides “broad spectrum” coverage (meaning it blocks out both UVA and UVB rays), one with an SPF of 30 or higher and one that is water resistant for 40–80 minutes. “The best sunscreen is the one you will consistently use,” she says. “Start your day with a facial moisturizer with built-in SPF. Daily sunscreen not only decreases your risk of skin cancer; it also helps prevent the signs of skin aging.”
Proper application is essential to optimize the effects of sunscreen. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes prior to outdoor exposure or swimming. Remember to re-apply every two hours, especially if swimming or sweating. Use a generous amount of sunscreen with each application. It should take 1 ounce (about the size of a shot glass) to cover all exposed areas on the body. Also, choose a lip balm with sunscreen to protect your lips from burning and peeling.
For those with sensitive skin or for children, Walters suggests choosing a sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, as they may be less irritating to the skin.
Finally, the expiration dates on sunscreens do matter. Sunscreens will typically last about three years and will not be as effective after the listed expiration date. Discard sunscreens if they change color or consistency, even if they have not expired.