Sun Protection

by Paulette Avery, RN, MSN, IBCLC

Summer approaches, and with it the likelihood that we will spend more time outside exposed to the sun. While some sun exposure provides a great way to increase your vitamin D level, too much sun leads to skin damage and an increased risk for skin cancer. Read on for ways to provide effective sun protection for you and your family.

When I think of sun protection, the first thing that comes to mind is sunscreen products. Choosing the best sunscreen has been a confusing process because of the wide variation in sun protection factor (SPF) levels and manufacturer claims. Now, thanks to new FDA mandates, by June 18 almost all sunscreen products must use new labeling information that will help all of us better understand what protection a product really provides. Product information now focuses more on the product’s test results and less on marketing claims. For instance, sunscreen products can no longer claim to be a “sun block,” since no product completely blocks sun damage. Rather than labels boasting the product as “waterproof,” new labels provide information on how long the sunscreen remains water resistant.

So what SPF level provides the best protection? Although some disagreement remains on this topic, most experts now say products with a SPF of 30 provides adequate protection for most people when reapplied every two hours. However, some dermatologists recommend that people with a history of skin cancer use a higher SPF. Products with SPF levels below 15 do not provide adequate protection against sunburn or sun damage. Look for a product labeled “broad spectrum,” which means it provides protection against both UVB and UVA rays.

Here’s some additional information about SPF factors from a Medscape article titled, “Sunscreens and Photoprotection” by Stanley B. Levy, MD and others. These authors point out that because most consumers use a smaller amount of sunscreen than recommended, the protection the product provides is lowered. And although the theoretical difference in protection between SPF 15 and SPF 30 is minimal, in actual practice the difference becomes significant. Additionally, even when no sunburn is visible, studies have found there can be significantly more subclinical damage with SPF 15 than with SPF 30 sunscreens.

Be sure to use enough of the sunscreen to provide the protection it claims. For an adult, that means a full ounce to cover your body, a generous palm-size dose. Apply it before sun exposure begins in order to get the best protection. Some of the ingredients need about 15 minutes to become effective after application. And remember to reapply every two hours if you remain in the sun.

Finally, a good tip from Good Housekeeping magazine: According to the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force, convincing teens about the importance of sun protection is more effective when they are presented with the dangers of developing wrinkles and uneven skin tones rather than warned about skin cancer.

Paulette Avery is a registered nurse and a freelance writer who specializes in health issues.