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Avoid the sunburn this summer

You may think a “base tan” will protect you from future sunburns, or that all you need for the perfect tan is for one serious burn to fade—but by the time your skin changes color, the damage has already begun.

“When your skin changes color due to sun exposure, it’s a sign of damage from UV radiation,” said Dr. Christine Cabell, a Geisinger dermatologist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of pre-cancerous and cancerous skin lesions with Mohs micrographic surgery. “This increases your risk of sun spots, wrinkles and skin cancer.”

The best way to prevent skin cancer and sun damage to your skin is to stay out of the sun or cover up as much skin as you can, but that’s not always possible. There are ways to protect yourself from future damage—and it starts with your sunscreen.

Every sunscreen product includes a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating. This refers to a product’s ability to block Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays, which cause skin to burn. 

SPF describes the amount of time it would take your skin to burn with sunscreen as opposed to without sunscreen. For example, if it would take your bare skin 10 minutes to burn, applying SPF 15 should increase that by 15 times—and prevent sunburn for 150 minutes.

So, how much SPF is enough?
“You might think that SPF 70 is more than twice as good as SPF 30, but that’s not how SPF ratings actually work,” said Dr. Cabell 

There is only a 3 percent difference in UVB coverage from an SPF 15 product (filters out 94 percent of UVB rays) to an SPF 30 product (filters out 97 percent of UVB rays). From there, the coverage begins to plateau. Between SPF 50 and 100, there is only a 1 percent increase in protection. Sunscreen acts as a filter and no product will give you 100 percent protection, no matter how high the SPF rating.

“How much sunscreen you need really depends on how much time you’ll be out in the sun. SPF 15 to SPF 30, which filter out up to 97 percent of UVB rays, should be adequate for most people,” said Dr. Cabell. “However, if you have a history of skin cancer, have other skin conditions, have very fair skin or are planning to be outside all day, you may want to consider a product with a higher SPF.”

It’s also important to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours or after swimming or sweating a lot. 

But there is a catch...
SPF does not include a measure of Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, which are more likely to cause deeper skin damage over time, such as wrinkles and age spots.

While there is not a rating system for UVA protection, you can still find sunscreen that includes
UVA-protective ingredients. When in doubt, check the label.

“Sunscreens that protect from UVA and UVB rays will be labeled broad spectrum, multi-spectrum or UVA/UVB protection,” said Dr. Cabell.

In addition, there are a few guidelines to follow to protect yourself from skin damage:

  • Plan ahead. Apply about 30 minutes before going outside. 
  • Apply enough sunscreen—1 ounce should cover your arms, legs, neck and face.
  • Don’t forget the sensitive spots! Apply sunscreen to your ears, feet, and lips—these places can all get burned, too.
  • Avoid peak hours of the sun. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you must be outside, stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or immediately after getting wet or perspiring—regardless of whether or not the sunscreen is water resistant.
  • Cover up! Wear clothes that completely cover your arms and legs. Wear a hat and sunglasses for additional protection.

Don’t forget about sunscreen once summer is over
Remember to use sunscreen all year—not just in the hottest months. UV rays reflect off sand, snow and water, so it is important to protect yourself and your loved ones during any outdoor activity.

Christine Cabell, MD, is a dermatologist at Geisinger Wyoming Valley Medical Center. To schedule an appointment, please call 800-275-6401.