Because of the ultraviolet (UV) radiation it emits, the sun can be inherently dangerous to human skin. The American Academy of Dermatology stipulates that there is no safe way to tan. Tanning is the skin's natural response to damage from the sun. The body tans to "protect" itself from further burning. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) states that everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity, is subject to the potential adverse effects of overexposure to the sun. Bottom line: everyone should protect their skin from the sun every day.

How We Burn

When ultraviolet light penetrates the epidermis it stimulates a redistribution of melanin, the substance responsible for skin pigmentation. With continued exposure, the melanin is actually increased. This redistribution and increase in melanin causes the skin to darken or tan. In essence, the skin is defending itself by getting darker. Therefore tanning is a sign of skin damage, not health. Sunburns develop when the UV exposure is greater than the skin's ability to protect against it as stated above. UV radiation (UVR) causes direct DNA damage, free radical formation and other harmful effects. Both burning and tanning are linked to permanent damage including premature aging and increased skin cancer risk.

Sunscreens

The sun emits two types of ultraviolet rays (UVR) that reach the earth and are harmful to human skin. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the dermis and lead to tanning, wrinkles, age spots and skin cancers. UVA even penetrates into shady areas. UVB rays penetrate less deeply into the skin and are responsible for  sunburn, cataracts and immune system suppression. Melanoma is linked to both UVA and UVB exposure. Skin cancer, including melanoma, is linked to both UVB-related sunburns that occur before the age of 21 and also chronic tanning from UVA rays accumulated over years.

Some sunscreen ingredients, known as inorganic or physical sunscreens, reflect UV rays do they don't penetrate into the skin. Key active ingredients of this type are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Other ingredients, known as organic or chemical sunscreens, allow for the skin to absorb UV rays, but convert them to harmless heat. Ingredients of this type include avobenzone, cinoxate, ecamsule, octyl methoxycinnamate, octyl salicylate, oxybenzone or sulisobenzone.

There is no sunscreen that blocks or reflects all UVR. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the manufacture and promotion of sunscreens. Sunscreens are given a SPF (Sun Protection Factor) number that indicates how long a person can remain in the sun without burning. It is recommended that people use products with a SPF of 30 or greater. Sunscreen ratings are like the estimated gas mileages on your automobile. The sticker may suggest you can get 30mpg, but with real life driving you actually get 20mpg! The story is similar for sunscreens. Although the bottle may suggest an SPF of 30, inadequate application and moisture can dramatically reduce the actual protection. Sunscreens are not generally recommended for infants six months old or younger. Infants should be kept in the shade as much as possible and should be dressed in protective clothing to prevent any skin exposure and damage.

There is no such thing as "all-day protection" or "waterproof" sunscreen. In fact, the FDA mandates that such language cannot be used in future sunscreen packaging. No matter what the SPF number, sunscreens need to be re-applied every 2 hours. Products that claim to be "water resistant" can only protect against sunburn up to 40 minutes in the water, and those labeled "very water resistant" can only protect against sunburn up to 40 minutes in the water.

Even in the worst weather, 80% of the sun's UV rays can pass through the clouds. Additionally, sand reflects 25% of the sun's UV rays, snow reflects up to 85% and water can reflect 100%.  As altitude increases, UV intensity increases and the UV intensity is higher in the summer and closer to the equator. Therefore, sunscreen should be worn every day and in every type of weather and climate.

Protecting Yourself From Sun Exposure

  • Look for sunscreens that use the term "broad spectrum" because they protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Choose a sunscreen with a minimum SPF rating of 15 or higher (SPF 30 or higher is better). The higher the number the more protection.
  • Follow the directions on the back of the sunscreen container.
  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you head out into the sun to give it time to absorb into the skin.
  • Apply sunscreens liberally. Use at least one ounce to cover the entire body. More is better.
  • Use a lip balm with SPF 15 or greater to protect the lips from sun damage.
  • Re-apply sunscreen soon after going into water or sweating.
  • Re-apply sunscreen every 2 hours even if you are not getting wet.
  • Use sunscreen every day regardless of the weather. You can burn or tan on cloudy days!
  • Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV rays.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing to limit skin exposure to the sun.
  • Stay in the shade whenever possible.
  • Try to avoid mid day sun between 10am and 2pm.
  • Avoid using tanning beds. Even one tanning bed episode increases your risk of skin cancer!

Treating a Sunburn

If you experience a sunburn, get out of the sun and cover the exposed skin as soon as possible. A sunburn will begin to appear within 4 to 6 hours after getting out of the sun and will fully appear within 12 to 24 hours. Mild burns cause redness and some peeling after a few days. They can be treated with cold compresses to the damaged area, cool baths, moisturizers to prevent dryness and over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams to relieve pain or itching. It is also important to drink plenty of fluids because you can lose fluids after a sunburn.

More serious burns lead to blisters and skin peeling. It is important not to rupture blisters as this can slow down the natural healing process and may lead to infection. You may want to cover blisters with white petroleum jelly to keep them moisturized and protected. Stay out of the sun until your skin has fully healed. In the most severe cases, your health care provider may prescribe oral steroids and/or antibiotics to prevent/treat intense inflammation or infection Pain-relievers or anti-inflammatory medications are occasionally used for severe sun burns.