Sunscreen: Protecting Yourself from the Sun

Spend a day at the beach or pool, and you can’t miss the pervasive and unmistakable smell of sunblock products wafting through the air. Shelves in drug stores and supermarkets are crowded with “new and improved” potions, lotions, gels, creams, wipes, and sprays. But using sunblock only on beach or pool days isn’t enough. Make it an everyday habit – and not just a quick smear on your nose in the morning.

That is because the sun damages skin in short-term and long-term ways. Short-term damage is done by UVB rays, which are only strong enough to penetrate the very top layer of the skin (the epidermis). UVB rays are strongest in the summer months and cause immediate short-term damage, like the flushing and stinging associated with sunburn.

Long-term and cumulative damage, including skin cancer, is done by more-harmful UVA rays, which penetrate more deeply and are consistently strong year-round. UVA rays dry and shrink the skin’s inner supportive collagen and elastin, resulting in premature aging and wrinkling. We all know people who were sun worshippers in their youth who enter middle age looking much older than they really are, with wrinkled “elephant skin” or worse – a deadly case of skin cancer. That “beautiful” golden tan many crave has a high cost.

As the ozone layer thins, exposure to both UVB and UVA rays is a routine part of our daily experience, sun up to sun down. Even inside a car, seemingly out of direct exposure, UVA rays come through the windows. If you’re outside – even in the shade – you are always exposed. Even inside your home or office, the sun penetrates through windows.

The biggest mistake we make is not using enough sunblock (minimum SPF 15) properly every day. To be effective, sunblock should be applied in layers to the most routinely exposed areas (face, neck, ears, arms and hands, and upper back and shoulders), allowing time between applications for the product to be absorbed.

There are a number of effective and inexpensive products for everyday use, including Olay® Complete and Neutrogena® Healthy Defense®, which offer SPF 30 to 45, as well as sensitive- and oily-skin formulas. For high-exposure days, like when you’re swimming and enjoying water sports, it is essential to use waterproof sunblock. Apply it 30 minutes before going outside, and then reapply liberally between dips. Blue Lizard® waterproof sunblocks, developed in Australia, are made with a unique micronized zinc oxide that creates an even barrier against harmful rays. And for serious outdoor athletes, BullFrog® waterproof and sweat-proof products are among the best – they even include formulas that repel mosquitoes!

If you have super-sensitive skin, your choice becomes even more important, as some sunblocks can be irritating. Products like COTZ™ and Vanicream™ sunblocks offer extra-gentle, chemical- and fragrance-free formulas containing only titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. 

And since a baby’s skin is the most delicate of all, infants younger than 6 months should not be exposed. A baby’s skin can become burned in as few as 10 minutes. Use a gentle product designed just for babies, like Aveeno® Baby Continuous Protection® Sunblock.

There are exciting advances that promise to make using sunblock as simple as washing your face. With new products like Ice Shield™ and St. Ives® Elements Protective Cleanser, you can literally “wash on” SPF 10 to 15 protection and step out of the shower with your first layer of protection. If you wear makeup, choose one of the numerous SPF foundations available.

Protecting ourselves from the dangers of the sun is something we must take seriously, even considering the sun’s benefits. Sun exposure helps generate vitamin D in our bodies, and low levels are linked to osteoporosis, cancer, and compromised immune systems. Even so, I recommend getting 1,000 units of vitamin D daily from foods or supplements instead of from sun exposure.

While I am an advocate of natural approaches to health, I’m also a strong advocate of disease prevention. Limiting exposure to the sun is right up there with quitting smoking when it comes to preventing disease and supporting good health.

Published on 05/18/2009 | Last updated on 10/18/2018