With the summer months approaching, you may be actively planning to spend time outdoors with family and friends. But before you head out into the sun, there are precautions to take to protect your skin.
The most immediate danger of time in the sun is sunburn. However, exposure to the sun can also increase your risk of skin cancer – which, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, is now the most common form of cancer in the United States. In fact, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one person dies from melanoma every hour, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
In honor of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke with Dr. Henry W. Lim – a board certified dermatologist, chair emeritus of the Department of Dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, Michigan, and a former president of the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) – on what consumers can do to prevent skin damage, skin cancer, and stay safe in the sun.
What are the dangers of too much sun exposure?
While there are many benefits of outdoor activities, being outdoors does expose one to the sun, therefore it’s important to understand the risks. The sun’s light includes invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays. When these rays reach the skin, they react with DNA to cause sunburn and skin damage, and with a chemical called melanin that results in tanning. Yes, tanning is a sign of skin damage. The risk of damage increases with the amount (e.g., how long) and intensity of exposure (e.g., the time of day) to the sun. People of all skin colors are at risk for sun damage, and the sun’s rays can cause damage even on cool, cloudy days!
There are two types of UV rays you should know about:
- UVA rays pass easily through the earth’s ozone layer, making them the most common form of sun exposure. UVA rays cause our skin to age and wrinkle, as well as contribute to skin cancer.
- UVB rays make up less sun exposure than UVA rays, but are more intense. UVB rays cause sunburns, cataracts (clouding of the eye lens), and affect our immune systems. These types of rays also contribute to skin cancer.
What are the best sun protection methods you recommend to your patients?
I tell my patients to follow a few basic rules when it comes to keeping their skin healthy and protected from sun exposure:
- Seek shade. Remember, the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 AM and 2 PM. A good rule of thumb is if your shadow is shorter than you are, it’s time to seek shade.
- Cover up. Wear protective clothing, such as a lightweight long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, and sunglasses, when possible. This rule should always apply to babies and kids, who are more sensitive to the sun.
- Use sunscreen. Generously apply broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Broad-spectrum sunscreen provides protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Make sure to apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours, or after swimming or sweating.
- Never use tanning beds. Tanning beds and sun lamps have high amounts of UV rays; they are known to increase the development of skin cancer.
We saw that in September 2021 the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued a proposed order that would update regulatory requirements for common sunscreen products sold in the United States. What does this mean for the public?
FDA’s proposed order asked sunscreen manufacturers to provide more safety data on several sunscreen ingredients – ones that have been used in the United States for years. Specifically, FDA wants to find out to what extent our skin absorbs certain sunscreen ingredients, and whether absorbing these ingredients has effects on our skin and bodies.
In its proposed order, FDA classifies two sunscreen ingredients as “generally recognized as safe and effective” (GRASE) – titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. FDA also proposes that two other sunscreen ingredients are not GRASE: PABA and trolamine salicylate. But, not to worry. You won’t find either of these ingredients in sunscreen legally sold in the United States. FDA also called for more safety data on 12 ingredients before issuing a final determination on how they are classified:
- Ingredients commonly used in the United States: ensulizole, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone, avobenzone
- Ingredients not frequently used in the United States: cinoxate, dioxybenzone, meradimate, padimate O, sulisobenzone
While FDA is asking for more data on these 12 ingredients, it’s important to note that it has not said these ingredients are unsafe. Furthermore, FDA confirms the effectiveness of sunscreen as one of the important ways to protect your skin from the sun. In fact, FDA recommends the public continue to follow sun safety guidelines – including seeking shade, wearing clothing, hats, and sunglasses, and using broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater.
How do I know if I’m using the right sunscreen?
There are a variety of sunscreens that contain different ingredients and levels of protection available to consumers. But to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, make sure you always wear a sunscreen that offers the following:
- SPF 30 (or higher)
- Broad-spectrum protection (UVA/UVB)
- Water resistant (if needed)
Make sure you look for a sunscreen that provides all three of these benefits. On some products, you may see the words “broad spectrum” or “UVA/UVB.” Studies show that daily use can reduce your risk of skin cancer and signs of premature aging like wrinkles and age spots.
What should parents keep in mind when applying sunscreen on young children?
Everyone over six months old should use sunscreen. For infants and toddlers, it is best to use a sunscreen that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as it is most appropriate for sensitive skin. Of course, even when using sunscreen, keep children in the shade and sun-protectant clothing as much as possible.
For children younger than six months of age, avoid applying sunscreen. Rather, protect their skin from the sun by keeping them in the shade and dressing them in long-sleeved shirts, pants, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses. But, make sure to take care to prevent overheating.
Do sunscreens expire?
Yes, they do. If you find a bottle of sunscreen that you have not used for some time, here are some guidelines you can follow:
- FDA requires all sunscreens to retain their original strength for at least three years.
- Some sunscreens include an expiration date. If the expiration date has passed, throw out the sunscreen.
- If you buy a sunscreen that does not have an expiration date, write the date you bought the sunscreen on the bottle. That way, you’ll know when it’s time to throw it out.
- You can look for visible signs that the sunscreen may no longer be good, including changes in the color or consistency of the product.