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Sunscreen - Don't Leave Home Without It

Summertime brings great opportunities to spend time outdoors and enjoy all of the fun warm-weather activities St. Louis has to offer. It is also the time of year when sunscreen and sun protection are most important. While it is tempting to dash out the door for a quick swim or an afternoon baseball game without sunscreen, just taking a few extra minutes to make sure that you have adequate sun protection can make a big difference for the health of your skin.

Washington University dermatologist, Kara Nunley, MD, says, “Unprotected sun exposure to UVA and UVB rays causes damage to the skin -- leading to premature aging and an increased risk of skin cancers including melanoma, basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. Approximately two million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year; which means that one in five people will be diagnosed with skin cancer over his or her lifetime. Protecting yourself from the sun will help keep your skin looking its best, but more importantly, will lower your chances of developing a skin cancer.”

With so many different sunscreen products available, sometimes just picking which one to use can be a challenge. It is important to choose a sunscreen that is labeled broad spectrum – this means that it protects against UVA and UVB rays. There are two types of sunscreens that can provide this protection: physical blockers, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide; and chemical blockers, including avobenzone, oxybenzone, and mexoryl.

Physical blockers may be best for people with sensitive skin as they are less likely to cause an allergic reaction. Chemical blockers tend to blend in and be less white or chalky when applied, but new technology is improving the appearance of both chemical and physical sunscreens.

Pick a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 – if you have had skin cancer or are very fair, a higher SPF of 50 or 75 may be preferable.

All sunscreens should be applied 15-20 minutes before going outside, and they must all be reapplied every two hours. A higher SPF rating does not mean that the sunscreen will last longer. Reapplication after swimming or perspiring is also recommended. Even “waterproof” and “sweatproof” sunscreens need to be reapplied after 40-80 minutes. Using a large enough quantity of sunscreen is also important – most people only use half of the recommended amount. One ounce, or enough to fill a shot glass, is a good estimation of how much to use to cover the exposed areas of an adult’s body.

As long as it meets these basic criteria – broad spectrum (UVA and UVB protection), water resistant, and at least SPF 30 – any form of sunscreen including sprays, lotions, gels and sticks, can provide good protection when applied properly.

“Sunscreen is a good start – but there are a few other tools that can be essential to staying safe in the sun,” adds Dr. Nunley. “Sun-protective clothing and hats are great ways to get long-lasting protection throughout the day. A regular white t-shirt does not provide much protection, but newer lightweight UV-protective clothing (rated on a UPF scale) can be worn in and out of the water and provide great protection throughout the day. This clothing is ideal for babies and children, but also for adults who may be too busy to reapply sunscreen to large areas of their body while having fun in the sun. Seeking shade between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, and using extra caution around water, sand, and snow (which can reflect the harmful rays) are also important.”
Recently, there has been concern that using sunscreen may prevent the body from generating enough vitamin D, important to maintaining good bone health. Fortunately there are safer ways to obtain vitamin D than through sun exposure. Dietary sources – dairy products, fish, fortified cereals – and supplements have been shown to be effective in providing what your body needs without the increased cancer risk that UV exposure entails. If you are concerned about bone health, talk to your doctor about safer options to increase vitamin D intake without damaging your skin through sun exposure.

Dr. Nunley stresses, “A yearly skin check by your doctor is recommended to help find any concerning skin lesions. Most skin cancers are very treatable if detected early. Therefore, one of the most important things that you can do to keep healthy skin is to check yourself regularly. Make sure to see a doctor if you notice any new or changing moles or any spot that is growing, bleeding, or does not seem to be healing properly.” For an appointment with Dr. Nunley, please call 314-996-8010.

Patients are seen at:  

Barnes Jewish West County Hospital
969 N. Mason Road, Suite 220
Creve Coeur, MO 63141
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Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine
Copyright 2015 Washington University School of Medicine