Elderly woman using cream for hand on the beach

Elderly woman smears her hands with sunscreen from a container on the summer sea beach

As the dermatologist in the Family Medicine Clinic at Kenner, I am constantly reminding people how crucial it is to take care of their skin with particular emphasis on using sunscreen to prevent damage that can lead to cancer.

Summer is fast approaching, and there are important safety tips to remember. For example, the sun rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., making that period the optimal time to apply sunscreen, wear sunglasses, and put on a hat and protective clothing. Seek shade when possible to prevent prolonged sun exposure.

There is no such thing as a “healthy tan.” The change in pigmentation occurs when ultraviolet rays reach the skin’s inner layers prompting the production of melanin, a protective substance. It moves toward the outer layers of skin and becomes visible a tan. The fact the body is going on the defense to protect itself from UV rays is not a good thing. Too much sun exposure can lead to melanoma, a common form of skin cancer.

People also need to be aware of their skin type, ranging from those in the level 1 category who develop sunburns almost immediately – very pale, ivory skin; blue, gray or green eyes; and either blonde or red hair – to those at level 6 who do not appear to get sunburn – characterized by very dark brown skin, and dark hair and eyes. Individuals on the low end of that scale need to be extra cautious against severe sunburns while those in the higher category may assume they are “built to be in the sun” and are less likely to protect themselves from exposure, which could be dangerous.  

Now, let’s take a moment to educate ourselves on sunscreen. In 2015, the Food and Drug Administration recommended that sprays and lotions should offer “broad spectrum” protection, meaning they would protect skin against ultraviolet A and B rays, responsible for premature aging and sunburns respectively. Both can contribute to skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing sunscreen that’s labeled SPF 30 or higher. The “sun protection factor” dictates how long you can be in the sun without burning while wearing the product compared to not wearing it. SPF 30 can block 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours and sooner if sweating, wiping with a towel, or swimming.

Most people need an ounce (one shot glass) of sunscreen to adequately cover their body. Also, do not forget those inconspicuous areas like the tops of the feet, ears, neck and the top of the scalp, even with a full head of hair. Extra precaution is recommended on or near water, sand and snow as the sun’s rays can be reflected and intensified leading to even worse sunburn.

The following are some helpful tips for choosing sunscreen:

  • Ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate or octinoxate are chemical compounds that work like a sponge absorbing the sun’s rays. They tend to be easier to rub into the skin without leaving a white residue. The FDA is calling for more data on these ingredients before determining whether they can be generally classified as safe and effective.
  • Ingredients such as titanium or zinc oxide (sometimes both) act like a shield, sitting on the surface of the skin. It deflects the sun’s rays and looks oily when applied.
  • Sunscreens with oxybenzone or PABA should be avoided if one has sensitive skin.
  • “Baby safe” products typically contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. They should be hypoallergenic and free of fragrances, oils, PABA or active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens that can often irritate sensitive skin. Zinc oxide, by the way, is a substance used in diaper rash cream such as Desitin and Balmex. It can make sunscreens thicker, depending on the volume used, but don’t worry – you shouldn’t look like Annette Funicello from the beach movies unless you actually use diaper rash cream on your face.
  • If you are prone to acne, choose an oil-free, non-comedogenic sunscreen. Liquids, gels or sprays are good for extra oily skin while creams and lotions are good for normal to dry skin. Gels also are good for scalp and hair-bearing areas as they are easier to rub in and won’t leave your hair greasy looking.

The final tip is to examine your skin regularly. Look for discolored patches that weren’t there before or moles that are increasing in size or developing an irregular shape. Immediately share any concerns with your health care provider, keeping in mind that skin cancer is more easily treated if caught early.