Summer Health

Sunscreen: How Important Is It?

Woman rubbing sunscreen on her legs

National Sunscreen Day is May 28 – also known as “Don’t Fry Day” to signify the Friday before Memorial Day.

The days are longer. The sun is shining. Those bright rays are a stark reminder to apply your sunscreen. But are you actually doing it?

When the sun hides behind clouds for most of the day, do you still remember to apply your sunscreen? Even on overcast days, it’s important to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays that permeate through the clouds.

In fact, lifetime sun exposure is the most preventable cause of skin cancer. That holds true whether you burn easily or not.

What’s more, did you know that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States? It’s true, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, notes the Skin Cancer Foundation.

That means many of us are spending too much time in the sun without enough sunscreen. But following sunscreen guidelines could significantly minimize your skin cancer risk.

What Is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 means that it would take your skin 15 times longer to burn than if you didn’t use that sunscreen and apply it as directed. Regularly using a broad spectrum (which means it covers both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen of at least SPF15 can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent and lower your risk of developing melanoma (the most deadly form of skin cancer) by 50 percent, the Skin Cancer Foundation states.

“An easy way to remember the difference between UVA and UVB is that with UVA, the ‘A’ makes us think of aging. UVA rays are the ones that may damage your skin and lead to premature aging and wrinkles over time,” says Shannon M. Wiedersum, DO, Doylestown Health dermatologist at the office of Mary B. Toporcer, MD, PC. “But with UVB, you can think of the ‘B’ to stand for burn. Those rays cause sunburn and skin cancer. So that’s why you want to protect yourself from both.”

Sunscreen Tips

Everyone six months of age and older should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, according to Dr. Wiedersum. Younger babies should be kept out of the sun and wear protective clothing because they are more sensitive to effects of sun and sunscreen.

For the best results, Dr. Wiedersum advises her patients to:

  • Use a sunscreen lotion with an SPF of between 30 and 50.
  • Stick with lotions versus sprays. Sprays are fine for reapplication only because they don’t tend to have the same coverage and effectiveness. “If you’re not going to reapply with a lotion, I’m okay with the spray,” she says. “It’s better than nothing.”
  • Use a shot glass-size amount of sunscreen lotion to apply to all exposed areas of the body.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes ahead of going outside.
  • Reapply every two hours — sooner if swimming or sweating — for maximum effectiveness.
  • If you have acne or have sensitive skin, look for labels that say “noncomedogenic.”

When it comes to sunscreen lotions, Dr. Wiedersum prefers the mineral sunscreens (those containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) over the conventional chemical sunscreen lotions. “We don’t know what effect that conventional sunscreen has on the body systemically. But what we do know is that mineral sunscreens just coat the skin and block the rays from ever getting in. We don’t absorb them and they do tend to protect you better,” she explains.

Many of the mineral sunscreens apply on the body as white so they’re not as aesthetically appealing as conventional, clear sunscreen. But many companies are now working on clear versions of mineral sunscreens, she adds.

Vitamin D Deficiency Dilemma

Called the “sunshine vitamin,” your body makes vitamin D when it’s exposed to the sun. But doing so puts you at greater risk for skin cancer. Although vitamin D deficiency is very common across the world, including in the United States and can cause a host of health issues like osteoporosis and rickets in children, Dr. Wiedersum recommends against sun exposure without sunscreen as a way to get the vitamin. Instead, try to get enough vitamin D through a healthy diet and if necessary, supplements.

“The benefits of sunscreen in terms of preventing skin cancer and sun damage truly outweigh the vitamin D you’re not absorbing in your skin through the sun,” she explains.

Long-term Outlook

Most often skin cancer results from the sun damage that occurred in your teens and twenties. Still, Dr. Wiedersum explains that it takes a long time to develop skin cancer, so what you do today can affect your skin 20 years from now. In other words, your susceptibility to skin cancer doesn’t just stop once you reach your twenties. The risk is continuous. However, there is a note of optimism:

“If you wear sunscreen every single day, we believe that you might even undo an element of sun damage that you had over time,” she says. “Don’t ever think you’re too far gone in regard to sun damage. You can always start protecting your skin today.”


About Doylestown Health

Doylestown Health is a comprehensive healthcare system of inpatient, outpatient and wellness education services connected to meet the health needs of all members of the local and regional community. Doylestown Hospital, the flagship to Doylestown Health has 247 beds and a Medical Staff of more than 435 physicians in over 50 specialties. An independent nonprofit health system, Doylestown Health is dedicated to providing innovative, patient-centered care for all ages.

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