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Sunscreen 101


Despite skin cancer being more prevalent than ever, many of us forget to make skin care a priority. With summer in full swing, it is important to protect our skin during this time of year. Putting on sunscreen is one of the easiest things you can do to protect your skin—during the summer months and all year long.

Here’s how people of all ages can properly apply the right sunscreen and keep their skin free from harm.

When to Use Sunscreen

Sunscreen should be applied every day you’re outside, even if it isn’t sunny. The sun emits harmful UV rays all year. Even on cloudy days, up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can be harmful to your skin. If you’re around sand, snow, or water, the need for sunscreen increases because they reflect the sun’s rays. It’s best to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before sun exposure begins. Cover all exposed skin, and reapply every two hours.

Children under the age of six months should not use sunscreen, but instead be shielded by shade as infants too easily absorb sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreen is effective for kids older than six months. Before using sunscreen on your infant, perform a patch test (try the sunscreen on a small area of skin) to make sure they can tolerate it.

Adults of all ages should wear sunscreen whenever they’re outdoors, but the elderly should take extra precautions. If you’re a caregiver or a family member of an older adult, gently remind them to apply sunscreen whenever necessary.

Choosing the Right Sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen is a great way to protect your skin, but it can be a challenge finding one that works. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved 17 sunscreen ingredients for use, and it differs from person to person which ingredients are right for them. Here are some things to keep in mind when choosing a sunscreen based on skin types:

  • For children, try the physical sunscreens zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are best for people with sensitive skin. Sprays or tubes with colorful packaging can help to make applying sunscreen fun.
  • If you suffer from allergy- or acne-prone skin, avoid products containing preservatives or fragrances, as well as those containing PABA or oxybenzone. Physical sunscreens, as well as those made with salicylates and ecamsule, are least likely to cause skin reactions.
  • For those suffering from dry skin, try a moisturizing sunscreen. Popular moisturizers in sunscreens are lanolin, oils, and silicones such as dimethicone. Look for terms like creams, lotions, or ointments on the label.
  • If you have a history of skin cancer or fair skin, sunscreen with an SPF of 30+ is recommended. Frequent reapplication is important.
  • People with darker skin may be hesitant to wear sunscreen because they rarely burn and some sunscreen is visible on their skin. Newer sunscreens tend to be micronized, which results in the particles being small enough to blend in and disappear into the skin. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15+.
  • For the elderly, it can be difficult to apply sunscreen to areas like the legs and back. Spray-on sunscreens are the best option.

The type of sunscreen you use should also differ depending on your activity level. If you are only outside for a few minutes at a time, an SPF of 15 is acceptable. If you’re going to be exposed to the sun for a lengthy period of time, use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Common Sunscreen Mistakes

Even those who choose the perfect sunscreen can make mistakes. Here are some common ones to avoid:

  • Don’t use the same bottle multiple summers in a row. If the expiration date has passed, stop using it. A bottle that’s left open frequently is likely to be contaminated with germs. Avoid stuffing an old bottle somewhere hot where its effectiveness can be reduced.
  • Most of us don’t use enough sunscreen. Put on enough to cover the whole body. Experts agree there’s no such thing as too much!
  • Don’t just put some on at the beginning of the day and assume you’ve done enough. Sunscreen is only effective for a maximum of two hours, and if you’re being active it may wear off even faster. Reapply frequently throughout the day.
  • There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen, and the FDA no longer allows the word to be used on bottles.
  • If it’s a cloudy day, you still need to put on sunscreen. The sun can still damage your skin even when you can’t see it.
  • Even if it’s applied correctly, sunscreen can’t protect you from the sun 100 percent. Take extra precautions by wearing a hat, sunglasses, and protective clothing.

Treating Damaged Skin

No matter how hard we try, sometimes our skin shows signs of damage. Symptoms like redness and peeling are indications that it’s time to get out of the sun and hang out indoors. Slip on a long sleeve shirt and pants that will help you avoid any further damage, and wear a hat and sunglasses when outside. If you’re burned, take a pain reliever and dip into a cool bath. Afterwards, use lots of lotion to moisturize and hydrate the skin.

Keep Cool and Wear Sunscreen

Wearing sunscreen is an easy and effective way to take care of your skin. If your skin is showing signs of sun damage, talk to your primary care provider or make an appointment with a dermatologist.