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A Summer Guide to Sun Protection

July 8, 2021

With summer in full swing - don’t neglect your skin! The skin is the largest organ in the body and is in direct contact with the environment all the time. Protecting our skin from the sun decreases risk of skin damage, aging and skin cancer.

Here are a few tips for protecting your skin this summer:

1. Wear protective clothing. Clothing provides direct protection from the harmful UV rays.  Wear comfortable, long sleeved shirts, hats and other forms of protective clothing.  You will obtain more UV protection with thicker and darker colored clothing. 

2. Wear sunglasses. Protect your eyes from UV radiation damage that has been linked to cataracts. Aim to protect the eyes from damage with suitable protective glasses when outdoors. The American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends wearing sunglasses that Block 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB light. Look for labels that state “UV absorption up to 400nm” which is equivalent to 100 percent UV absorption.

3. Plan when you’ll be outdoors. Plan your time outdoors around the sun and check the UV index. Choose times such as the early morning or late afternoon when there is lower sun intensity for outside activities. You can check your specific location's UV index on most smart phones.

4. Use the right kind of sunblock. Sunblock protects us from ultraviolet radiation from the Sun. UV light is composed of UVA, UVB and UVC rays. UVA damage is predominantly linked with skin changes related to aging, and UVB damage is linked with sunburns. Both UVA and UVB are linked with an increased skin cancer risk. (UVC doesn't penetrate the earth's atmosphere, so is not a concern.)

What is the right kind of sunblock? In general, a cream-based sunblock is preferred over aerosols due to possible inhalation risk along with a concern of inadequate skin coverage.  When you are choosing a sunblock, look at the active ingredients. Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are generally recognized as safe and effective ingredients. Mineral-based sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide process these minerals as nanoparticles to ensure sunscreen and SPF coverage. These nanoparticles do not penetrate the skin when mineral-based lotions are applied, but they have potential to be harmful to organs inside the body, if ingested. For that reason, The Environmental Working Group (EWG) recommends avoiding use of mineral-based powder or spray sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide nanoparticles. 

Avoid sunscreens containing the ingredient oxybenzone which has been linked to high absorption in the body, potential endocrine/hormone disruption and allergenic components.  This is particularly concerning for children who absorb and accumulate higher levels of this chemical within their bodies. 

Look at the SPF – the "Sun Protection Factor." The SPF number refers to the theoretical amount of time you can stay in the sun without getting burnt compared to unprotected skin. For example, SPF20 allows you to stay in the sun 20 times longer than you would if you weren’t wearing sunscreen. A more scientific way of thinking about it is that, when applied correctly, SPF30 allows 3.3% of UVB rays to reach your skin while SPF 50 allows only 2% to reach your skin.

EWG suggests that consumers avoid products that claim an SPF higher than 50+.  Per the FDA, higher SPF values have not been shown to provide additional clinical benefit and may provide users with a false sense of security.  The FDA recommends that you choose an SPF of at least 15 and if you have fair skin a higher SPF of 30 to 50.

Look for the terms "broad spectrum coverage" which means there is UVA as well as UVB protection. Make sure to apply sunscreen about 15 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapply every 2 hours, or more frequently if swimming or sweating.

For additional resources, please see EWG's sunscreen guide and the FDA Website on Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun

References

Taylor, H. R. (1989). Protect eyes from ultraviolet light to prevent cataract rather than retinal damage. JAMA, 261(24), 3550-3550.

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Authored by Soussan Ayubcha, MD and Casey Moffitt, 3rd Year Medical Student, Sidney Kimmel Medical College, Thomas Jefferson University