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Protecting Your Skin from the Sun

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Remember when we thought slathering on baby oil to promote tanning was doing something good for our skin?

These days, a dizzying number of sunscreens and sunblocks cram stores' shelves, promising protection from the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays. If you don't have a PhD in chemistry, reading and understanding the ingredients lists on those bottles is nearly impossible.

Yet shielding your body from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light is vital, in any weather or season. Both types of UV rays—UVA and UVB—are invisible and damaging, causing sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. Cloudy days are no protection, since UV rays penetrate clouds. And with the earth's ozone layer thinning, solar radiation is increasing. So are all types of skin cancer, including the most serious—malignant melanoma.

Still, many of us think about using sunscreen only when we're heading out to the beach or pool. Even then, the average U.S. adult uses less than one bottle a year. That's a mistake. UV rays do their damage anytime. They can pass through window glass or reflect off concrete and snow as well as sand and water. Artificial sources of UV light, as in tanning booths, are also dangerous.

"The more sun you get, the more likely you are to get damage and potentially increase the development of melanoma and skin cancer," says Diane S. Berson, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University Weill Medical College in New York City. "We recommend that people wear sun protection every day."

Do different people get more or less damage?

The lighter your skin, the more quickly you'll burn. But darker-skinned people, who tend to tan rather than burn, are still getting UV-caused damage.

You're likely to be more sensitive to UV rays if you:

  • Have many moles or freckles on your skin
  • Have a family history of skin cancer
  • Live or vacation at high altitudes, where UV radiation increases
  • Have autoimmune diseases such as lupus or have had an organ transplant
  • Take oral contraceptives, some antibiotics, naproxen sodium or certain other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications, diuretics or tricyclic antidepressants (This is only a partial list of drugs that can increase the sun sensitivity of your skin and eyes. Check out all your medications with your pharmacist or health care professional.)

Choosing the right sunscreen

While there are numerous sunscreen formulations, choose only those that are labeled "broad-spectrum." This means they block both UVA and UVB rays. Many sunscreens only block UVB. To get UVA protection as well, look for avobenzone (Parsol 1789) or oxybenzone as ingredients.

There's one catch, however, Dr. Berson points out: Avobenzone degrades in sunlight, so you have to re-apply it frequently. Some (but not all) Neutrogena brand sunscreens use a special technology called Helioplex™ to overcome this problem. Products containing mexoryl, a UVA filter that helps stabilize avobenzone, are sold in Canada, Europe and elsewhere, but the ingredient has not yet been approved for use in the U.S.

Don't rely solely on SPF (sun protection factor) numbers to guide you. SPF only measures UVB protection. Choose at least SPF 15, but higher is better, especially since most people don't use as much sunscreen as they should or re-apply it frequently enough. What's more, research shows that products often give less protection in sunlight than their SPF numbers suggest. Even if the SPF 30 or 45 costs a bit more, it's worth the extra expense.

You may prefer using a sunblock to a sunscreen. Sunblocks provide a physical barrier between your skin and both UVA and UVB rays, but may feel heavier. Dr. Berson recommends sunblocks containing zinc oxide or titanium oxide.

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Shield your eyes from UV damage, too

Sunlight can hurt your eyes as well as your skin. It contributes to your risk for developing cataracts, macular degeneration and more.

For best eye protection, choose wraparound-style sunglasses labeled as blocking at least 99 percent of all UV light. Wear sunglasses anytime you're outdoors. (Adding a wide-brimmed hat shields your eyes even more.) Polarized lenses cut glare, but don't stop UV rays. If you want polarization, make sure the sunglasses are also labeled for maximum UV protection.

Some contact lenses have UV shielding. Ask your eye health care professional about your brand. Even with UV-blocking contact lenses, you should still wear sunglasses that prevent the maximum amount of UV rays.

More Tips for Sun Protection

  • Be careful about sun exposure at all times, but especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Use a palmful of sunscreen (about one ounce) to cover your legs, arms, neck and face. Reapply after swimming, sweating or at least every two hours. And use lipblock, too.
  • What you wear can help keep UV light away. Darker, tightly-woven fabrics are better than lighter, loose-knit or wet clothing. "A white t-shirt has an SPF of about 5; a wet, white t-shirt has an SPF of 1 or 2. That's not really protecting you," Dr. Berson says. Some clothing lines offer UV-protective fabrics in sportswear, bathing suits and hats.
  • You may want to try a laundry additive that adds UVA and UVB protection to fibers in the wash load.
  • Before going out, check the UV Index. This daily forecast included in many weather reports rates the intensity of UV rays expected each day when the sun is at its highest. Exposure ratings are scaled from 0 (minimal) to 10+ (very high). Use special caution anytime the UV Index is 5 or higher.
  • Topical antioxidants applied to your skin can help prevent some sun damage, Dr. Berson says. Look for products containing antioxidants such as green tea, coenzyme Q10, vitamin C and retinol, a vitamin A derivative.
  • Use face lotions (and makeup, if you wear it) containing sunscreens with at least SPF 15.
  • When using insect repellents, apply sunscreen first. Do not use a combination product, because sunscreen needs to be applied more often than repellent.
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) say that insect repellents containing the active ingredients DEET or picaridin are more effective than others. The higher the amount of DEET or picaridin in a product, the more hours of protection it provides. The CDC also found that oil of lemon eucalyptus, a plant-based repellent, provided longer-lasting protection than other plant-based ingredients—and keeps bugs away as well as repellents containing low levels of DEET.