Protecting Your Skin from the Sun

woman at the beach putting on sunscreenRemember when we thought slathering on baby oil to promote tanning was doing something good for our skin?

These days, a dizzying number of sunscreens and sunblocks cram stores’ shelves, promising protection from the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays. If you don’t have a PhD in chemistry, reading and understanding the ingredients lists on those bottles is nearly impossible.

Yet shielding your body from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) light is vital, in any weather or season. Both types of UV rays—UVA and UVB—are invisible and damaging, causing sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. Cloudy days are no protection, since UV rays penetrate clouds. And with the earth’s ozone layer thinning, solar radiation is increasing. So are all types of skin cancer, including the most serious—malignant melanoma.

Still, many of us think about using sunscreen only when we’re heading out to the beach or pool. Even then, the average U.S. adult uses less than one bottle a year. That’s a mistake. UV rays do their damage anytime. They can pass through window glass or reflect off concrete and snow as well as sand and water. Artificial sources of UV light, as in tanning booths, are also dangerous.

“The more sun you get, the more likely you are to get damage and potentially increase the development of melanoma and skin cancer,” says Diane S. Berson, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University Weill Medical College in New York City. “We recommend that people wear sun protection every day.”

Do different people get more or less damage?

The lighter your skin, the more quickly you’ll burn. But darker-skinned people, who tend to tan rather than burn, are still getting UV-caused damage.

You’re likely to be more sensitive to UV rays if you:

  • Have many moles or freckles on your skin
  • Have a family history of skin cancer
  • Live or vacation at high altitudes, where UV radiation increases
  • Have autoimmune diseases such as lupus or have had an organ transplant
  • Take oral contraceptives, some antibiotics, naproxen sodium or certain other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, diuretics or tricyclic antidepressants (This is only a partial list of drugs that can increase the sun sensitivity of your skin and eyes. Check out all your medications with your pharmacist or health care professional.)

Choosing the right sunscreen

While there are numerous sunscreen formulations, choose only those that are labeled “broad-spectrum.” This means they block both UVA and UVB rays. Many sunscreens only block UVB. To get UVA protection as well, look for avobenzone (Parsol 1789) or oxybenzone as ingredients.

There’s one catch, however, Dr. Berson points out: Avobenzone degrades in sunlight, so you have to re-apply it frequently. Some (but not all) Neutrogena brand sunscreens use a special technology called Helioplex™ to overcome this problem. Products containing mexoryl, a UVA filter that helps stabilize avobenzone, are sold in Canada, Europe and elsewhere, but the ingredient has not yet been approved for use in the U.S.

Don’t rely solely on SPF (sun protection factor) numbers to guide you. SPF only measures UVB protection. Choose at least SPF 15, but higher is better, especially since most people don’t use as much sunscreen as they should or re-apply it frequently enough. What’s more, research shows that products often give less protection in sunlight than their SPF numbers suggest. Even if the SPF 30 or 45 costs a bit more, it’s worth the extra expense.

You may prefer using a sunblock to a sunscreen. Sunblocks provide a physical barrier between your skin and both UVA and UVB rays, but may feel heavier. Dr. Berson recommends sunblocks containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide