In my dermatology practice, I recommend and provide specific skin treatments depending on many factors, including my patients’ skin tone, type, and condition. However, there is one blanket preventive recommendation I make for all my patients: Wear a moisturizer with sunscreen every day! I can always find a reason to make this recommendation.
Applying sunscreen can help many people decrease the risk of certain types of skin cancers, especially in those who have lighter skin tones. When buying sunscreen for yourself and your family, I recommend that you look for labels that promise:
- Broad-spectrum (or full-spectrum) protection against UVA and UVB rays
- SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher
- Water resistance (If you anticipate water-based activities or activities that make you sweat)
Let me answer some questions you may have about why I recommend sunscreen with the three qualities listed above.
1. What does “broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays” mean?
As noted, broad-spectrum or full spectrum means the sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. A mineral-based sunscreen, which often appears white when applied, will contain the minerals titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, or both, as the active ingredients. Some mineral-based sunscreen formulations minimize the white hue historically left on the skin. Chemical sunscreens — containing oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, or other ingredients — also can be broad spectrum.
The sun produces harmful UV rays, and overexposure can lead to skin cancer in some people, especially those with lighter skin tones:
- UVA rays are more prevalent and can cause you to tan, but they also age your skin by causing wrinkles.
- UVB rays are more powerful, causing sunburn and playing a key role in some forms of skin cancer. SPF numbers refer mainly to sun protection against UVB rays.
- Sun exposure may cause dark spots, make existing dark spots worse, and contribute to a dull skin appearance.
Since UV light is invisible to the human eye and strong enough to penetrate clouds, you might not realize UV rays are burning your skin until it’s too late. Also know:
- UV rays are most intense and damaging between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
- UV rays can reflect off water, sand, concrete, and snow. That’s why it’s important to wear sunscreen year-round.
2. Why should I use an SPF of 30 or higher?
An SPF of 30 should provide enough sun protection to allow you to be outdoors 30 times longer than without sunscreen and still prevent your skin from burning. However, know that SPF numbers don’t mean UVB rays are completely blocked. SPF 30 still allows approximately 3% of UVB rays to penetrate your skin.
Other sun protection precautions include wearing a hat, sunglasses, a long-sleeved shirt, and long pants whenever possible. You can also buy what’s known as “sun-protective clothing,” which has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) label. The UPF tag will detail how much protection from the sun that item of clothing will provide.
3. Can I stay in the water longer if I use a sunscreen labeled water-resistant?
No. Water-resistant means your sunscreen won’t wash off easily while swimming or sweating. However, the longer you are exposed to sun and water, the less effective your water-resistant sunscreen will be.
Water-resistant sunscreen can maintain its SPF for up to 40 or 80 minutes in a freshwater pool. Keep in mind that swimming in chlorinated pools and at the beach means the SPF factor might not last as long.
Here are my rules of thumb for sunscreen combined with water activity or sweating:
- Reapply sunscreen every time you get out of the water or work up a sweat.
- If you see the word Sport on a sunscreen label, it doesn’t mean it’s water-resistant. Sport is a marketing term to make the sunscreen sound like it’s sweat-proof. Look for the words “water resistant” and for a specified time of protection, like 40 or 80 minutes.
4. Do people of color and those with olive skin tones benefit from using sunscreen?
Yes, indeed! UV rays penetrate all skin tones. As a woman of color and a dermatologist, I don’t step outside without wearing sunscreen. Although the risk of skin cancer in those with darker skin tones is lower, sunscreen helps to reduce the risk of dark spots and dull skin appearance.
It’s a myth that people of color can’t get sunburns, skin damage, or skin cancer. Patients with darker skin tones can get skin cancer, but it is very rare for people of color to develop the deadliest type of skin cancer, which is melanoma. Because it is rare in these patients, there is often a delay in diagnosis and treatment, which can negatively affect outcomes in these patients.
5. How much and how often should I apply sunscreen?
To help protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays, here’s what I recommend:
- At least 15 to 30 minutes before you go outdoors, apply at least 1 ounce (the equivalent of two tablespoons) of sunscreen, to your body, plus roughly one teaspoon to your face. Apply sunscreen even if you plan on wearing a hat.
- Ensure you apply sunscreen from head to toe. Don’t forget the exposed part in your hair, ears, lips, neck, hands, and feet. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after you go for a swim.
6. What are some sunscreen tips for babies, children, and people with sensitive skin?
It’s crucial to protect babies’ and children’s skin from the sun. Even if you avoid the sun as an adult but had sunburns as a kid, you are still at risk for skin cancer. In kids who are particularly fair-skinned, the more severe the sunburn, the greater their risk for melanoma, which is the most deadly type of skin cancer.
Now that you know why it’s important to protect children’s skin, my tips include:
- Keep babies under 6 months old out of the sun. If taking your baby out in a stroller, stay in the shade as much as possible, and cover them in lightweight clothing and a wide-brimmed hat, as the sun might penetrate the stroller cover fabric.
- To avoid irritating the sensitive skin of babies and kids, I would suggest using products designed for children with sensitive skin. You can ask your pediatrician or dermatologist for recommendations depending on your child’s skin. Many of these are zinc oxide- and titanium oxide-based.
- Consider a stick sunscreen for kids’ faces to minimize the chances of it burning their eyes.
7. What skin conditions can develop if I don’t use sunscreen?
No matter your skin type or color, collagen and elastin break down with sun exposure, causing wrinkles, leathery skin, age spots, scaly patches, and uneven skin tones. If you have a darker complexion, sun exposure might produce more melanin and create darker patches on your skin, otherwise known as hyperpigmentation.
Some conditions involving hyperpigmentation, like melasma, may also worsen from visible light, which comes from normal lights that are inside your house. For people with melasma, wearing sunscreen, even if they are not leaving the house, can be helpful.
8. What are skin cancer types and the signs I might have skin cancer?
If you see a new mole on your skin or an existing mole changes size or color, I advise my patients to have it checked out right away.
Other types of skin cancer to look out for include:
- Basal cell carcinoma: This skin cancer takes the form of small bumps (sometimes as white or waxy bumps) on your face, neck, ears, or other sun exposed areas. Basal cell carcinoma can also show up as flat scaly areas, or brown bumps on sun exposed areas.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This skin cancer can appear as red bumps or as bleeding or crusty scales. Squamous cell carcinoma usually shows up on skin that gets excessive sun, such as your face and hands, but can appear in other places as well.
- Melanoma: The deadliest type of skin cancer, may occur in an existing mole or more commonly, a new spot on the skin. Melanoma has a variety of appearances, but may be flat or raised, have irregular borders, and may contain shades of brown, black, blue, and occasionally, pink. In those of African descent, melanoma, though rare, most commonly appears on the palms, soles or under the nails.
I want all my patients to enjoy their time outdoors, but I also want them to reduce their skin cancer and skin aging risks. By choosing sunscreen and applying it properly, everyone can enjoy the pleasures of the sun while limiting its damaging rays.
If you have a concern with your skin, schedule an appointment today.
The dermatologists at Temple Dermatology are experts at detecting and treating all types of skin cancer and other skin conditions. If you’ve never had a concerning area of your skin checked by a board-certified dermatologist, schedule an appointment online.