The Scoop on Sunscreen
By Dr. Carrie Carter, M.D.
Q: Now that it's summer, my kids and I spend lots of time outside. I always put sunscreen on everyone before we go out, but we still get sunburned. What else can I do to protect us from frying in the sun?
A: Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with more than 1 million cases diagnosed each year, and even one peeling sunburn before your child turns eighteen can double her lifetime risk of melanoma. So you are right to be concerned! Congratulations on using sunscreen on both you and your children. There are several more important steps you can take to minimize sun damage and still maximize fun in the sun.
Here comes the sun!
It’s not enough to avoid trying for a tan; you also need to be aware of other times you receive sun exposure. Walking around the block with your preschooler and weed pulling in the garden add up to a lot of sun damage over the years. That’s why it is best to work sunscreen into your family’s daily routine. Many facial moisturizers now incorporate sunscreen. Check the strength (it should be SPF 15 or higher – I recommend 40) and whether it protects against both UV-A (deeply penetrating aging rays) and UV-B (superficial sunburning rays).
The amount of sunscreen you use also matters. Gob it on – this is not a time to be frugal. Doctors recommend one palmful (about one ounce) of sunscreen per application for adults.
Remember to think ahead. After applying sunscreen, it takes twenty to thirty minutes for it to activate in your skin cells. So apply sunscreen half an hour before you go out, and reapply every few hours, especially after you have been in the water (even if you are using a waterproof product).
Run From the Sun
Beware a false sense of security when wearing sunscreen. Even with sunscreen, you will get sun damage over time. Some recent studies show an increase in skin cancer rates in sunscreen wearers. While others don’t show the same results, it makes you wonder if some folks with skin cancer spent more time in the sun than was sensible because they were wearing sunscreen. A better strategy is to block your skin from the sun with clothing or avoid exposure during peak hours of sun intensity, from 10am - 4pm.
Dress like a movie star going incognito. Don a three-inch-wide brimmed hat (or one that has a flap over the back of your neck) and UV-blocking sunglasses with large lenses.
Put a shirt on your preschooler in addition to sunscreen when your child is out in the sun and water during peak hours. Wear darker color clothing that absorbs UV light. Ideally, clothing should cover you with long sleeves and pants, and there should be a collar to protect your neck. Now, I know it sounds ridiculous to wear long sleeves and long pants on a hot summer day, and impossible to get a preschooler to do so. But at least consider it if you are very sensitive to the sun or have a family history of skin cancer. Another option is to try one of the lines of skin protective clothing, like Solumbra, made from patented sun-protective fabrics.
Did you know that Bugs Bunny has a secret sunscreen, and you and your children can use it, too? Research suggests that carotenoids (as in carrots, “doc”) and other antioxidants may help protect you from sun damage. The best way to get those antioxidants is by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, but for adults research has also looked at nutritional supplements. These are not to be relied on in place of topical sunscreen, though. Consider them only as an added help.