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Summer is approaching, and I want to share my best tips for protecting your skin from the sun. Dermatologists know and practice these tips well, and now you can, too!

Here is a quiz to start you off: 

  1. Why should you protect your skin? 
  2. How long does it take to get a sunburn?  
  3. What are the best ways to protect yourself from the sun? 
  4. How do you know if your skin has been damaged by the sun? 
  5. What is “SPF?”

Why does your skin need protection?

Your skin is your body’s largest organ, and it does a lot for you. It protects you from the elements, helps regulate your body temperature, and even makes vitamin D when exposed to the sun. But without proper protection, those sun rays can cause serious damage.  

  • Sunburn: The most immediate and obvious effect. Sunburns are characterized by warmth, redness, pain, and sometimes even blisters. Severe cases may even cause systemic symptoms like nausea and vomiting.
  • Skin Cancer: Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States by far. Basal and squamous cell carcinomas are extremely common in sun-exposed skin. Melanoma is less common, but it is deadly. Melanoma is the third most common type of cancer among men and women aged 20-39 years, and the incidence rises every year.
  • Premature Aging: UV radiation accelerates the aging process. Too much sun exposure often results in wrinkles, fine lines, and brown spots.

How long before sunburn occurs?

How long depends on a few factors:

  1. How intense are the sun’s rays,
  2. The amount of your skin’s intrinsic protection (melanin),
  3. Your sun-protective habits.

The more intense the sun’s rays are, the quicker your skin will burn. The sun’s intensity waxes and wanes depending on many factors, including your location and the time of day. In general, I recommend using a UV tracker so you can get a customized and accurate idea of the UV intensity where you are located. In Houston, where I live, the UV intensity is Moderate to High to Extreme in the Spring between the hours of 10 a.m. and 5 p.m.

Your skin’s ability to withstand sun exposure depends on its melanin content. If the UV intensity is extreme, a person with fair skin can burn in minutes. A darker-skinned person will take longer to burn. Although darker skin is less likely to burn, it can still get a sunburn. Also, please note that certain medications can increase the skin’s sensitivity to sunburn. These include common medications like NSAIDs, contraceptive medications, antihistamines, and certain antibiotics.

How can you protect yourself from the sun?

So, what can you do? You can attempt to reduce sun exposure by staying inside) when the UV intensity is moderate or higher.  If you must go outside, you can protect yourself by:

  1. Seeking shade,
  2. Wearing hats, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing,
  3. Applying sunscreen liberally and often to sun-exposed areas.

How do you know if your skin has been damaged by the sun? 

This is a simple answer: If your skin tans or burns, it has been damaged. That is right: a tan develops in response to damage. There is no such thing as a “safe tan.”

What is SPF?

SPF stands for sun protection factor.  You see this number on sunscreen bottles and it measures how much longer you can stay in the sun before getting a burn.  For SPF 15, you will theoretically be able to stay in the sun for 15x longer than you would without the protection. For SPF 30, you would expect that it would take 30x as long to get a burn. However, most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to get the effect on the label.

The Myths and Misconceptions of Sun Protection

Let’s clear up some common myths about sunscreen and sun protection.

  • “If I wear sunscreen, I don’t have to worry about the sun.” For the best protection, combine sunscreen with sun avoidance and physical sun protection (hats, sunglasses, clothing). Most people simply don’t apply nearly enough sunscreen or reapply frequently enough to get the protection that the sunscreen label promises.
  • “I don’t need sun protection on cloudy days.” UV rays can penetrate clouds, and 80% of them do.
  • “Darker skin does not need protection.” While it’s true that darker skin has more melanin, which provides some protection, darker skin can still burn. Everyone, regardless of skin tone, needs to think about sun protection.
  • “I only need to protect myself from the sun if I am at the beach or the pool.” If you are outside and you can see visible light, you are exposed to UV rays. This means going to your car, checking the mail, walking your dog, or gardening, etc.
  • “I can’t use sunscreen since I need sun exposure to get Vitamin D.” Studies indicate that sunscreen use does not interfere with Vitamin D production. In addition, you may augment vitamin D with oral supplementation. If you are still concerned, you can get your vitamin D levels tested.

Summary of Sun Protection 

  1. Know the UV intensity and take special care to protect yourself when UV rays are moderate, high, or extreme 
  2. Try to avoid going outside when the sun’s rays are more intense 
    Seek shade 
  3. Wear physical protection (hats, sunglasses, and sun-protective clothing) 
  4. Wear sunscreen.

Some additional sunscreen tips:

  • Choose Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen: Make sure your sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. 
  • Apply generously and often.  
  • If you are swimming and sweating, choose water-resistant sunscreen and check the label to see how long you can wait between applications (typically 40 or 80 minutes). 
  • Remember to cover areas that are often missed: ears, eyelids, neck, hands, and feet.  
  • Check the expiration date.

Protecting yourself from the sun is a multi-pronged effort that requires a little discipline. Hopefully, these tips will help you make informed decisions.  

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