My friends and I have talked about the good habits our parents used to teach us. “Brush your teeth,” “wear sunscreen,” “don’t stay out late.” Like any kids we had our fair share of cavities, sunburns, and late nights, but we didn’t know that sunburns would come back to bite us a lot harder than cavities or a late night could.
Back in high school, I used to tan a lot. Even though my mom made me wear Sea and Ski sunscreen, SPF 4-8 (which barely did anything), I would skip it whenever she wasn’t around. Spring break meant sunburns, and skiing in Vail meant blisters on my nose. I was a typical kid of the 60’s. My friends would find a roof to lay down on, direct the sun at their faces, and slather themselves in oil to speed up their tan.
As a teenager, I didn’t know that I was going to be a dermatologist. I didn’t know that tanning could give me skin cancer like smoking gives people lung cancer. My friends and I thought tans were healthy. We didn’t like the sick-pale look that comes with winter in Chicago.
Now the dangers of tanning have been exposed. You see less tanning oil on the shelves and more SPF 50+. You see broad spectrum sunscreen, something that didn’t exist when I was a teenager. And you see people wearing sunscreen during the summer when they’re running, on the beach, or just sitting by the pool. The teenagers of 2015 know more about long-lasting, healthy skin than my generation or my parent’s generation ever did.
I’ve had to take melanomas, squamous cell carcinomas, basal cell carcinomas and other deadly skin cancers off of my patients. I’ve met men and women with cancers that have metastasized (spread to other parts of their bodies), and I’ve had to explain to them that their chances of making it were low. Even still I have to beg my kids to wear sunscreen.
When I was a kid, we didn’t know the damage we were doing to ourselves. To think that stepping outside without sunscreen forty years ago could give me cancer today is scary. It’s real, and as a society we have come a long way to prevent it.
Now we know to protect our ears, face, nose, arms, hands, chest, back, legs, ankles and feet. We know that sunscreen washes off in the water, even if it’s water resistant. The basics of sun protection have solidified, and it’s up to us to keep changing for the better.
Sunscreen should be as routine as brushing our teeth. Sure, there’s no need to use it if we’re inside all day or if we’re covered in clothing that’ll block the sun just fine. But if we are outside, whether it’s 10 degrees or 90, we need to protect any skin that’s exposed. All that means is choosing the right sunscreen and remembering to wear it. The right sunscreen has either titanium oxide or zinc oxide, is broad spectrum, and is SPF 50.
Why SPF 50? The SPF number is the sunscreen’s sun protection factor. It tells you how much longer you can stay outside without burning. With SPF 50 you should be able to stay outside 50 times longer than normal, if you slather it on. Unfortunately, the people who run SPF testing use much more sunscreen than you or I do. Only protective mothers use as much as them. So when it comes to the real world, you’re not actually getting 50 times the sun protection. It’s a pretty safe bet to assume that SPF 50 will give you about two hours of sun protection. If I’m outside for an hour or less, I can usually get away with SPF 30. I’ve tried SPF 15, and it’s just not worth the money.
Why should you use broad spectrum? Broad spectrum accounts for blocking both UVA and UVB radiation. Regular sunscreens only block UVB and barely any UVA. So what’s the big deal? Well if you keep blocking UVB, you’re not going to sunburn, which is great. But UVA will still penetrate your skin, and studies have shown that UVA can cause skin cancer too. So now you don’t have a sunburn warning you that the sun is damaging your skin, while the UVA is doing its nasty work. We know this is dangerous. Tanning parlors primarily expose you to UVA and have caused many skin cancers.
I like mineral sunblocks like titanium oxide or zinc oxide. They’re broad spectrum and don’t have all of the chemicals that are in other sunscreens. If you get the SPF 50 mineral sunblocks, you’re pretty much doing the best you can to protect yourself from the sun. Granted, a long sleeve shirt and a wide brimmed hat would be the best protection, but that isn’t everyone’s summer fashion.
So now that I’m a dermatologist, I’m always protected, right? I wish! Accidents happen, and even I occasionally get burned. We all make mistakes. Even now, most people forget to put on sunscreen before they forget to brush their teeth or call in a late night. But it’s important to learn and try our best to get into the good habit of using it. That way we can enjoy the sun in moderation the same way we enjoy ice cream in the summer.
If your skin is going to be out in the sun remember three things if nothing else: mineral sunblock, broad spectrum, and SPF 50. I’m not telling you to wear sunscreen underneath your shirts (unless they are sheer). You know how to use sunscreen. Make the conscious decision to use the ones that work. Enjoy the sun without a worry.
Dr. Janet Hill Prystowsky is a board-certified dermatologist with over 25 years of experience in dermatology and dermatologic surgery.
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