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Living Well

Summer Fun Starts with Sun Safety

Last updated: Jul 18, 2016


Confused about what type of sunscreen to buy?  You're not alone. Go into your local drugstore during summer, and you’ll see racks of sunscreen for babies, for sports, for swimming, for sensitive skin—and even more varieties.  It can be hard to choose the best one for yourself and your family. But one thing is for certain, sunscreen is a must for healthy skin.  Not only in summer but year round.

Why? Because exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light over time is the leading cause of skin cancer. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.  An estimated five million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year in the United States. Melanoma is the least common, but most dangerous type of skin cancer.  

Who really needs to wear sunscreen? 

Contrary to popular belief, everyone needs to protect their skin with sunscreen.

 “Anyone, no matter their skin type, can get skin cancer,” says Emily Altman, MD, a Summit Medical Group dermatologist. “People with fair skin have the greatest susceptibility to skin cancer, but even people with the darkest skin tones, and the most melanin in their skin, should protect their skin from the sun.”

Why is sunlight dangerous for the skin?

Sunlight is a form of radiation.

  • There are two types of sunlight that cause skin damage: ultraviolet A (UVA or "long-wave") and ultraviolet B (UVB or "shortwave") rays. 
  • These rays can be deadly.  They penetrate skin cells and cause mutations that can lead to skin cancers
  • Sunscreen protects the skin, and it is important to use a brand that shields you from both UVA and UVB rays.

What type of sunscreen should I buy?

Dr. Altman offers these tips for sunscreen selection.

  • Sun protection factor (SPF) is a measurement of how well a sunscreen will protect the skin. 
  • Every sunscreen has an SPF number. SPF only reflects the ability to block UVB rays. To block UVA rays effectively, a sunscreen must contain ingredients such as mexoryl or avobenzone.
  • Use a broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher.
  • For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Apply one to two tablespoons of sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or more often if swimming or sweating.
  • Shade newborns from the sun, and apply sunscreen to babies six months and older.
  • Don’t forget to protect your eyes. Over time, the sun’s rays can seriously damage the eyes and surrounding skin, leading to vision loss, cataracts, macular degeneration as well as eye and eyelid cancers.
  • Be aware of UV levels.  Check weather report.
  • Check with your primary care physician and pediatrician regarding supplementation with vitamin D3. Sunscreens protect our skin from sun damage and help prevent skin cancer, but they do limit the skin’s ability to make vitamin D.

"Limit your overall exposure to the sun," says Dr. Altman.  "I'd recommend staying out of the sun altogether between 10 AM and 4 PM when ultraviolet rays are strongest.  If you have to be outside, during that time, stay in the shade.  Make sure you use enough sunscreen and reapply it regularly.

More than every before there is a great variety of affordable and effective sunscreens including:

  • Creams
  • Lotions
  • Gels
  • Sprays (Make sure to smooth the sprayed-on sunscreen on the skin)
  • Sticks
  • Combination moisturizer/sunscreen
  • Combination makeup base/sunscreen
  • Nonstinging sunscreen for sensitive skin.

There are sunscreens for every skin type, including unscented, oil-free, hypoallergenic, and non-comedogenic products for people who have a tendency toward breakouts or allergic reactions. Waterproof sunscreens are ideal if you like to swim or engage in outdoor sports that make you sweat.

Your kids might get a kick out of fruit-scented, fast-blast sprays that make it quick, easy, and fun to apply sunscreen.

See Dr. Altman’s comprehensive talk about skin conditions, including sunburn, on SMG’s YouTube channel.  To schedule an appointment with a board-certified Summit Medical Group dermatologist, please visit the SMG website.


Interview with Emily Altman, MD