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Safeguard your skin: The ultimate guide to sunscreen

By The Health News Team | May 30, 2024
Person putting sunscreen on their arm

As the summer sun continues to blaze, it’s crucial to recognize good skin care as the health necessity it is. In the U.S., skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer, with approximately 1 in 5 Americans developing it in their lifetime, mostly due to unprotected ultraviolet (UV) ray exposure.

However, according to Dr. Curt Littler, a board-certified dermatologist with Sharp Rees-Stealy Medical Group, achieving optimal sun protection to decrease your risk of skin cancer doesn’t have to be a challenge. From how to choose the right sunscreen to what to do when you don’t and your skin gets burned he answers your top 5 questions about staying sun safe.


Which type of sunscreen is best?

Dr. Littler prefers mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. As an added plus, this type of sunscreen also tends to offer more water and sweat resistance.

However, since mineral sunscreens have a tendency to leave a whitish film on the skin, some people prefer tinted varieties that can blend better with different skin tones.


What does “SPF” mean, and which should I choose?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. The numbers that follow on the labels represent the amount of protection against UVB (ultraviolet B) rays, one of the two main ultraviolet rays that extend to the earth’s surface. The second type, UVA (ultraviolet A), penetrates deeper into the skin, contributing to premature skin aging and wrinkle formation.

According to Dr. Littler, SPF 15 provides around 93% protection from UVB rays, SPF 30 offers about 97%, SPF 50 blocks about 98%, and SPF 100 provides nearly 99% UVB protection. But Dr. Littler reports SPF 30 is a good choice for general skin protection. “There isn’t much benefit from going higher,” he says.

Currently, there is not a good system for measuring protection from UVA rays. However, physical blockers, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are much better than their chemical counterparts at blocking UVA rays.


Should I choose a spray, stick or lotion?

The type of sunscreen you use is a matter of personal preference, says Dr. Littler. Some people like a cream for better moisturization or gels because they are clearer on the skin, while others favor sticks for easier application.

While sprays are another popular choice, Dr. Littler emphasizes the importance of a thorough application. Make sure to rub the sunscreen in during application, he advises. This ensures you’ll have complete coverage and prevent missed areas on the body, which could lead to sunburn.


How should I treat a sunburn?

Given that sunburns are a form of skin inflammation, treatment involves the use of anti-inflammatory medications, Dr. Littler says. This includes over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (found in Advil), naproxen (found in Aleve) or 1% hydrocortisone cream, which is applied directly to the skin.

Aloe vera gel also has anti-inflammatory properties, Dr. Littler says. As a pro tip, he recommends storing the gel in the refrigerator for a more soothing application. If these remedies are ineffective, talk with your primary care doctor or dermatologist about whether you might benefit from prescription medication.


Do kids need special protection from the sun?

Sun protective clothing, such as fabrics with a high UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) are a great option. To decrease sun damage to the skin, Dr. Littler recommends you begin applying sunscreen to your kids at an early age.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends minimizing sunscreen use on children under 6 months. The best way to protect infants is to keep them in the shade.

“Sun damage is cumulative over the years of your life,” Dr. Littler says. “So the less sun you accumulate, the less chances there are for developing skin cancer.”

Learn more about skin cancer; get the latest health and wellness news, trends and patient stories from Sharp Health News; and subscribe to our weekly newsletter by clicking the "Sign up" link below.

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