Your Place in the Sun

Readying your skin for summer

Photograph by Arkady Chubykin/istockphoto

As the calendar flips from winter to spring, most of us look forward to longer days, warmer weather, and the chance to get outside in the sunshine more often. But with that pleasure comes concerns about the damaging and aging effects of sunlight on our skin. With more than 1 million cases of skin cancer being diagnosed in the United States every year, our spring to-do list should always include a shopping trip to restock last year’s supply of sunscreen. These tips can help you navigate your way through the overflowing aisles of sun-
protection products:

First, understand the distinction between “natural” and “chemical” sunscreens. “Natural sunscreens are those which contain active ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are minerals that can reflect UV radiation,” says Dr. Anna Bruckner, the Director of Pediatric Dermatology at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto.

These UV-reflecting sunscreens operate differently from chemical sunscreens, which basically work by absorbing UV rays. Dr. Bruckner says that as long as a broad-spectrum product is used—one that will protect against both UVA and UVB rays—both mineral-based (natural) and chemical products are equally effective at sun protection. However, mineral-based sunscreens tend to be gentler on the skin, and are usually preferred by people with sensitive skin.

Recent research has revealed some potential dangers associated with ingredients in chemical sunscreens, which has led organizations such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) to advise consumers to choose mineral-based sunscreens over chemical products. The EWG has released a list of recommended mineral-based sunscreens that are free of parabens, oxybenzone, PABA, retinyl palmitate, and other controversial ingredients. (Check out their top picks on the website or the free iPhone app “EWG Sunscreen Buyer’s Guide”.)

Dr. Latanya Benjamin, Clinical Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Stanford School of Medicine, agrees that mineral-based or natural sunscreens may be a more prudent choice. “Chemically based sunscreens can offer adequate protection; however, given the recent controversies surrounding various chemical ingredients, I recommend that consumers select a sunscreen based on their personal comfort level. If you are worried about chemicals or have sensitive skin, go with a natural sunscreen,” she says.

In general, products containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are the most skin-friendly, and today the minerals in these “oxide” sunscreens are usually micronized to prevent the white-paint, “lifeguard-nose” look. Still, a label that says “natural” does not necessarily indicate that the entire product is natural or mineral-based. Many products also contain chemical preservatives, fragrances, lubricants, or other compounds. If using a non-chemical product is important to you, read the entire list of ingredients rather than just the big words on the front of the package. Some consumers choose to avoid products with harsher chemical preservatives such as parabens, including butylparaben and methylparaben. As an alternative, look for sunscreens without preservatives or those with milder preservatives, such as potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate.

Almost all sunscreen products on the market today are broad-spectrum, but here again, it doesn’t hurt to check the label. Dr. Benjamin provides an easy reminder: “B is for burns, but A is for aging.” Whatever type of sunscreen you buy, it should block both UVB and UVA rays.

Another issue faced by sunscreen shoppers is the question of SPF (sun protection factor). How much is necessary? What’s the magic number? In 2010, the FDA banned manufacturers from labeling their products with SPF levels higher than 50, stating that the larger numbers misled consumers into believing they were getting extra protection from the sun.

"If you are worried about chemicals or have sensitive skin, go with a natural sunscreen."

“There are few benefits to going past an SPF of 45 or so,” says Dr. Benjamin. “An SPF of 15 or more, preferably 30, is sufficient for daily use.”

Some manufacturers are now adding the word “organic” to their sunscreen products, touting a variety of other benefits derived from organic botanicals and antioxidants. However, this may not be as meaningful as it seems. With sunscreen products, “there is no standardized definition for organic labeling,” says Dr. Benjamin.

Of course, selecting a good sunscreen is only one part of the sun protection process. Using the proper amount, and reapplying that amount every one to two hours, is even more important than SPF or sunscreen type. Dr. Bruckner advises “a shot-glass full” of sunscreen for the body. Apply it in a thick, uniform layer about 30 minutes prior to sun exposure.

Strategic scheduling of sun time is important, too. Dr. Bruckner suggests we avoid excessive sun exposure during the peak hours of the day when UV rays are the strongest—10 a.m. to 4 p.m.—so plan your daily jog or swim for early in the morning or late in the afternoon.  She also stresses the importance of seeking shade and donning sun-protective clothing. And in the Bay Area, it’s easy to forget that foggy days require sun protection, too. “There is UV exposure even on cloudy days,” Dr. Benjamin says.

Even with all the scary facts about the sun’s damaging rays, it’s still true that a modicum of sunshine is necessary for a healthy life. Recent studies have suggested that some of us may not be getting enough vitamin D from the sun. Dr. Benjamin says, “There is currently much investigation happening on what is the necessary amount of sun exposure for adequate vitamin D production, especially in individuals who are at risk for vitamin D deficiency.”

But Dr. Bruckner says these recent studies are no reason to ditch the sun protection. While the jury is still out on vitamin D research, “we know that UV rays cause DNA damage to the skin and this damage is cumulative. Hence our recommendations for sun protection,” she says. Dr. Bruckner cites a colleague’s recent study, which showed that typical sunscreen use did not have an effect on vitamin D levels. “This is probably because most people do not use enough sunscreen to block all the UV rays to the skin.”

For urban dwellers who work at indoor jobs, Dr. Bruckner recommends a moderate approach to sun protection. On most days, a simple facial moisturizer with SPF 15 is sufficient. When heading out for an afternoon at the beach or a weekend in Tahoe, you should increase your protection level: Wear a hat and other sun-protective clothing and use a sunscreen with a higher SPF. And don’t forget to set your timer on your watch or cell phone, so you’ll remember to reapply every hour or two.