Summer Sun Basics

By: Red Hot Mamas

Published: May 26, 2010

Written by Menopause Minute® Editors

Being a Red Hot Mama in the summer is not easy. If you’re like me, your fan is your best friend and doesn’t leave your side.  It’s almost impossible to avoid the sun in the dog days of summer, so here are some tips to protect yourself from those rays, even in the winter months.

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are the invisible rays that the sun emits as energy. They assist our bodies in making vitamin D, but can also be harmful to the body if you’re not properly protected. Sunburn is the damage caused to skin cells when they’ve absorbed too many UV rays. This doesn’t only happen on bright, sunny days. It can occur even on cloudy, hazy days. Dark skinned people are just as susceptible as fair skinned people to the damage caused by UV rays.
Sunburn and over-exposure to UV rays can eventually cause skin cancer.

Every year, approximately one million skin cancers are detected. By protecting yourself from and reducing exposure to the sun’s UV rays, scientists believe you can actually decrease your risk of skin cancer.

The best way to battle UV rays is by staying out of the sun and/or covering your skin:

  • Seek shade, especially during midday hours. The hours between 10AM and 4PM are the most dangerous for UV exposure in the continental United States.
  • Wear protective sunglasses. Grab some shades that block both UVA and UVB rays. Wrap-around lenses are a good choice because they will keep UV rays from sneaking in at the sides.
  • Wear a hat (it will protect your eyes, hair and skin on the face and neck)
  • Wear long, loose fitting clothing if possible
  • Wear a beach cover-up or pants with a tight weave
  • Add a shirt, but keep in mind that a typical t-shirt usually has an SPF that is much lower than the recommended SPF 15. Add some shade or sunscreen

What You Should Know About Blocking, Screening and Tanning
OK, I know wearing pants in the middle of the summer time is not always easy to do. So, the next best option is a protective sunscreen.  Now, many of us grab our suntan lotion without realizing that this term is really used for any type of lotion or oil that is worn while in the sun. Lotions typically minimize the chances for sunburn while letting some of the sun’s rays gradually darken the skin that healthy tan look. Suntan lotion basically filters the skin’s exposure to UV rays, but it won’t protect you from a sunburn or damage to the skin cells below the surface.

What you really need to prevent any damage to the skin (on the surface and underlying layers of epidermis) is sunscreen. Sunscreen uses the ingredients titanium oxide and zinc to minimize the chances for deep sunburns. If you want to work on your tan and don’t burn easily but also want to protect your skin, use sunscreen.

Sunblock is a little different. It uses higher concentrations of titanium oxide and zinc than those found in sunscreen. Sunblock gives the highest amount of protection from the sun. I always think of those beach volleyball players playing in the sun with zinc on their noses. If you burn easily, or evidently play a lot of beach volleyball, you should choose this option.

When choosing your sunscreen or sunblock, you need to consider the sun protection factor (SPF) number on the label.  Here’s the deal on those SPF numbers. The amount of time it takes for a person’s skin to be sunburned is multiplied by the SPF number of the sunscreen she uses. If your skin typically starts to turn red after 10 minutes of exposure to direct sunlight (don’t try this by the way), a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 would ideally increase that time to 300 minutes. Other environmental factors come into play, of course (i.e., time of day, how much a person sweats or comes into contact with water, etc.) but this is the general rule for SPF.  And, by all means, if you are a sweater, or take a swim, don’t forget to reapply it!

The general rule to keep in mind is the greater SPF number, the greater protection. So, if you’re fair skinned, choose a higher SPF. Most dermatologists recommend SPF 15 or higher for people susceptible to sunburn. Those people need to reapply every hour. Sunscreens with high SPFs aren’t going to block all the UV rays from the sun, but they’ll lower your risk for sunburn and lower the risk of skin diseases, like skin cancer. Oh! And, don’t forget your lips! They need protection and moisture too. There are a ton of lipsticks and lip glosses on the market that have sunscreen added to them.

Choosing the Right Sunscreen
My last trip to purchase sunscreen (UVA and UVB protecting, of course) was a nightmare. First, I went to my local pharmacy and I was overwhelmed with the dozens of bottles stacked on the shelves promising things that I had no idea what they meant (i.e., waterproof, broad spectrum protection, all day protection, block harmful rays, etc.).

After some research, I came across the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) most recent study of the safety and effectiveness of nearly 2,073 sunscreens. I think you’ll be as shocked as I was to learn that 3 out of 5 sunscreen products on the market offer inadequate protection from the sun, or contain ingredients with significant safety concerns.  Leading brands were the worst offenders!

In August 2007, the FDA proposed a 4-star rating system for UVA protection and a requirement that the rating appear on sunscreen labels. Currently, FDA has not finalized this proposal and no brands are posting the rating voluntarily. Consumers are left guessing which (among the thousands) of products on the market will give them the UVA protection they need. For more information about EWG’s analysis of its Skin Deep database, see the complete list of 134 recommended products, or see the 589 sunscreens to definitely avoid.

Read about Managing Midlife Skin Concerns

References:

"2009 Sunscreen Guide." 2 06 2009. Environmental Working Group. 9 Jul 2009 <http://www.ewg.org/cosmetics/report/sunscreen09>.

"Skin Cancer Prevention." Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 12 06 2009. 9 Jul 2009 <http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/prevention.htm>.

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