But too much sun can cause premature wrinkling, sun spots, sunburn — and, in the worst cases, skin cancer. While wearing sunscreen daily should be a part of your routine, it’s most important when the sun shines brightest in the summer months. Thankfully, the newest sunscreens, clothing and sunglasses can provide excellent protection so that you can safely enjoy your time outside. Even if you think you’ve heard it all before, brush up on your sun IQ before the heat hits this summer, and your skin will thank you!
Sun spots: Just a mark, or something more serious?
Sun spots — also known as age or liver spots — have nothing to do with your liver, but result from repeated sun exposure on an area of the body. They range in color from white to brown, and, once they appear, they continue to darken or increase with every UV ray that hits your skin. They often appear on the hands, arms, chest, face and shoulders, though they can appear anywhere on the body if it has been exposed to UV rays.
But how do you know if a spot on your skin is simply a sun spot or something more serious, like skin cancer? First, if a spot is new, you should run it by a dermatologist, as they have specialized training in skin conditions.
If you are over age 50, it’s a good idea to have a full-body check with a dermatologist or primary care physician to get a baseline for what your moles, freckles and spots look like.
Plus, some areas are hard to examine on your own, like your back. If you are under 50 but have had a lot of sun exposure, are fair-skinned or have a family history of skin cancer, it’s a good idea to get a full-body check.
Another strategy for keeping track of changes in your sun spots, moles or freckles is to take a picture — a phone camera works fine — every six months to a year so that any changes will be more apparent. (Sometimes, you don’t notice a chance that happens gradually, but a picture will tell a clear story.)
If you’re determined that your sun spot is not cancerous, but you don’t like the way it looks, you have options. Some over-the-counter creams can gradually fade dark spots. A low strength of hydroquinone, which is a bleaching cream, is available over-the-counter at many drugstores. You can also look for creams that contain retinoids, which can also help spots fade. A doctor can provide stronger topical creams that may be more effective, and new laser technologies that are available through dermatologists can treat sun spots, causing them to disappear completely. However, they can reappear unless sunscreen is used religiously and you avoid too much sun exposure in the peak hours of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest.
How to choose the best sunscreen for you
Protecting your skin outdoors starts with sunscreen. While older formulas left a tell-tale white film that was messy and difficult to rub in, the newest sunscreens are easy to apply and can virtually disappear into the skin. Look for the words “broad spectrum” on your bottle or spray, as this means that it will protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are responsible for wrinkles and aging; UVB rays cause sunburn and play a big role in the development of skin cancer — so protection from both is important.
If you are swimming or playing sports, look for a formula that is water-resistant so it will stay with you through your tennis game or splash in the pool.
If you have sensitive or acne-prone skin, scan the sunscreen aisle for a formula made specifically for babies or sensitive skin for less chance of irritation. People of all ages, from babies 6 months old and up, need sunscreen protection when outdoors. (Younger babies should always be covered.)
Sunscreen is a weapon, but to protect you well, it has to be used wisely. Ideally, apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure, using a full shot-glass worth of the product. Dermatologists advise you to use more than you think you need. Reapply at least every two hours or every 80 minutes if you are swimming or sweating. There are now sprays that can be applied to wet skin, so if you can only grab your kid on his way to the diving board for a quick spray, it can still be effective.
In addition to sunscreen, many bathing suits, swim cover-ups and fabric hats now come with sun protection built-in. Instead of an SPF rating, clothing has a UPF rating — giving you an idea of how effective it is at blocking harmful rays. UPF ratings range from 15 (good) to 50+ (excellent).
In addition to sunscreen and UPF clothing, sunglasses are an easy way to protect your eyes and the skin around them from exposure. Look for shades that offer 100% UV protection — and know that darker lenses don’t offer better protection. Dark-tinted glasses without UV protection are more dangerous, as they dilate your pupils more than a lighter lens color, leaving them more exposed to damaging light.
When avoiding the sun is your best move
Some medications can make you photosensitive — a fancy word for more sensitive than usual to the sun. There are many medications that can do this, including many nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen, many antibiotics and some diuretics. Most drugs will have a warning on the label. Additionally, you can ask any pharmacist, and they’ll be able to advise you if a medication you are currently taking will cause sun sensitivity.
Photosensitivity can result in an inflammation of the skin created by the combination of sun exposure and the medication. This can look similar to a sunburn, rash or eczema. Some topical creams like retinoids and hydroquinone also cause sun sensitivity. If you are taking any of these medications, you should heed the warning to avoid the sun, or you may wind up with painful, blistered or red skin.
The outdoors were meant to be enjoyed — and if you wear your sunscreen, don a hat and sunglasses, seek shade breaks and avoid the sun if taking photosensitive medications, you won’t be sidelined by sunburn.
Sun care cheat sheet:
- Sunglasses aren’t just a fashion statement. Look for a pair that offer 100% UV protection, and know that the color of the lens does not tell you how much protection your shades offer. Darker doesn’t mean better!
- Apply sunscreen daily to all exposed skin, rain or shine. Choose a broad spectrum formula of SPF 30 or higher; generic brands can be just as effective and save you money.
- Sunscreen — Apply early and often. Slather on your choice of sunscreen 30 minutes before you head outside, and re-apply every 80 minutes to two hours. Remember, you need a full shot-glass worth to cover your body!
- UPF-rated clothing can offer additional protection. UPF-rated clothing adds another layer of protection between you and the sun’s harmful rays — so find a hat or swim shirt this summer.