The Golden Rules of Sun Protection
I've Got Sunshine
By Melissa Gulden
This season, you are probably spending every moment you possibly can outside. Our skin is exposed and vulnerable more often than we realize—driving around with the windows down, having lunch al fresco, enjoying a stroll on the River Trail—and exposure to damaging rays is no joke. Putting on sunscreen should be as normal a part of your beauty routine as your favorite mascara. Now is the time to make sure you’re using the right kind of sunscreen and that you’re also using it correctly.
Love your sunscreen Finding your sunscreen soul mate is the key factor for using it regularly. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, each year in the United States, more than 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated. So if you don’t love your sunscreen, it may make you less likely to put it on or to reapply. Happily, there are plenty of formulas from which to choose.
Your makeup alone isn’t enough. Makeup and daily moisturizers with SPF will protect your skin if you load them on and reapply every 90 minutes, but who’s really going to do that? And most SPF-spiked beauty products skimp on the important UVA-blocking ingredients. So think of your moisturizer and makeup as an extra layer of protection, and always apply a lightweight, broad-spectrum sunscreen such as Clinique’s City Block Sheer Oil-Free Daily Face Protector SPF 25.
Beware of high numbers: SPF (or sun protection factor) basically translates to how long you can stay exposed to the sun without burning. For example, SPF 15 means that it will take 15 times as long for your skin to burn. When the number gets to more than 50, the rule doesn’t apply. A proposed FDA regulation will limit the maximum SPF value on sunscreen labeling to SPF 50+. An SPF of 30 to 50 is adequate. Even if the sunscreen claims to be waterproof, it can still be wiped off with a towel or come off when sweating, so make sure to reapply every couple of hours. If you’ve been in water, reapply as soon as you get out.
Look for “broad spectrum” formulas: The sun emits two types of rays, UVA and UVB: Think A for aging and B for burning. UVA can damage skin on a deeper level, while UVB causes sunburns. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Check the label for titanium dioxide, zinc oxide or avobenzone. These are the UVA heavy hitters. Apply sunscreen about 15 to 30 minutes prior to stepping out, and be sure to cover all of your body’s exposed areas, including the back of your neck, shoulders, chest, ears and hands. And always use a lip balm with SPF.
Layer it on: Think you apply enough? Almost no one does. The biggest mistakes people make when applying sunscreen? Not using enough and not reapplying. It takes one ounce (enough lotion to fill a shot glass) to cover your body properly. For spray formulas, hold the nozzle close to your skin and spritz, moving slowly up and down until you see a sheen, then go back over the area. For your face, apply a pea-size drop to each cheek, your forehead and chin, then rub in. If you wear contacts or have sensitive eyes, consider using children’s sunscreen on your face. The formulas are usually run-resistant, so they are less likely to get in your eyes.
Expiration dates matter: A bottle of SPF won’t last more than a few weeks if you’re using as much as you should. If it does, toss it after a year. The formula is less effective over time and it deteriorates even faster when exposed to heat. Most sunscreens are designed with specially formulated stabilizers that protect their potency for up to three years, assuming you didn’t let it bake for days in your backyard. Store sunblock in a cool place and while you’re at the beach, keep it in the shade.
Meds can make you more vulnerable: Almost half of all medications can make your skin more susceptible to sunburns, and some prescriptions require you to avoid sun completely, so ask your pharmacist. Medications like tetracycline, and diuretics and painkillers such as Celebrex, Aleve and ibuprofen up your chances of getting a burn. They make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, specifically to UVA wavelengths, which means you need to be extra vigilant about sunscreen when you’re taking them.
Don’t stop at sunscreen: Sunscreen is only one part of a sun-smart plan. The hierarchy of sun protection should be avoidance first, then seek shade and wear a wide-brim hat and protective clothing, then use sunscreen. Consider hitting the beach or pool in the morning instead of midday (when sun is strongest), and bring an umbrella. Overcast? The sun’s UV light does get through on cloudy days. In fact, some types of clouds can actually increase UV intensity by reflecting and refracting sunlight. Bottom line: wear sunscreen every time you head outside.
It’s never too late to start safe habits: So you baked in the sun as a teen with little or no sunscreen. While regular tanning or getting several bad burns when you’re young raises your risk of skin cancer, what’s critical is that you put on sunscreen now. Since skin’s ability to repair itself decreases with age, your risk is even greater if you burn now. So be safe in the sun and find the products that work for you.