Why you should wear sunscreen

Have you ever known someone who had skin cancer?  I have—most of them family members, and all of them mid-life or older.  That is, until a few weeks ago when a friend in his early thirties was diagnosed with skin cancer—melanoma.  The shocking news of his diagnosis sent some scrambling to a dermatologist to have their own skin checked.  Use of sunscreen was definitely moved to priority status.

 How much sun is too much?

As much as we love the sun, it does not love us.  Our love affair with sunshine offers little in return. While sunshine helps the body to create vitamin D, studies show that you can get all the vitamin D you need from only 10 to 15 minutes of direct sun exposure about three times a week.  The American Academy of Dermatology recommends daily sunscreen use for exposure of more than twenty minutes.  Not just when sun bathing, but when you’re out in the sun gardening, exercising, etc.

 How much sunscreen and when?

So how much sunscreen do you need, and when?  Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outdoors.  One ounce is enough to cover exposed areas properly.  Be sure to cover all exposed areas completely.  A missed spot can result in a patchy, painful sunburn, so watch out when using spray sunscreens.

Reapply sunscreen after 2 hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or drying off. Even water-resistant sunscreens don’t last forever.

What does SPF mean?

Look for sunscreen with a sun protection factor, known as SPF, of 15 or higher.    If you have skin that burns easily, or a history of skin cancer, an SPF of 30 or higher is advised.

The sunscreen SPF rating is calculated by comparing the amount of time it would take to produce a sunburn on skin with sunscreen to the amount of time needed to cause a sunburn on unprotected skin.  For example, if you are fair-skinned and  would normally burn after 10 minutes of sun exposure, a sunscreen rated SPF 2 would double the amount of time it takes to burn.  You could be out 20 minutes before burning.  An SPF 15 sunscreen would allow you to multiply the initial burning time (10 minutes) by 15, meaning it would take 15 times longer to burn, or 150 minutes.

Eighty percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 18, so make sure your kids use sunscreen, too.  Sun protection should be as much a part of outside activities as hand-washing before dinner time.  Parents are obligated to be good role models for their kids and protect their own skin as well.

Tanning alternatives

For most, tanning is a matter of vanity.  A deep, dark tan is considered attractive.  The cruel irony is that the sun exposure that causes this desirable tan can be the ruin of skin appearance later.  Sun exposure causes most facial wrinkles and  age spots.  Tanning to look better is ultimately self-defeating.  Despite claims that tanning booths offer “safe” tanning, artificial radiation carries all the risks of natural sunlight.  If a tan is a must, a healthier option is to use the many sunless tanning products that are on the market.

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