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sunscreen
Even for doctors, it can be hard to choose a sunscreen.
COURTESY CHEZBEATE ON PIXABAY

By DR. JOSE FLORES
For Montclair Local

sunscreen
DR. JOSE FLORES

This series on health-related topics is written by practitioners in Summit Medical Group. This month’s author is family medicine physician Dr. Jose Flores, who practices at SMG in Glen Ridge. When Dr. Flores is enjoying the outdoors, he always makes sure his family covers up with protective clothing and slathers on the sunscreen. 

Most of us enjoy a nice sunny day at the beach, golf club, or in the backyard. Sunlight is essential for the synthesis of vitamin D and has a positive effect on our mood. But ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which comes from sun rays, also has several acute and chronic effects on our skin, including sunburn, skin cancer, and photo-aging. 

Ultraviolet radiation (UV) is composed of both UVA and UVB radiation. UVA makes up about 95 percent of sunlight rays while UVB composes the other 5 percent. UVB exposure is generally correlated with the development of skin cancer and acute sunburns, while UVA exposure contributes more to photo-aging. 

Since there is a lot of sunscreen lining supermarket and drugstore shelves, sunburn is more common than it should be today. In fact, studies show nearly one-third of adults and two-thirds of children are sunburned at least once every year! 

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Unfortunately, some of us have a harder time protecting our skin than others. Individuals with fair and less-pigmented skin are more likely to get sunburns and are at increased risk for photodamage and sun-induced skin cancers. 

Sunburns are not just uncomfortable. Research shows that the number of sunburns you get correlates with increased risk of a potentially fatal skin cancer called melanoma, while chronic lower-level exposure is linked to other types of skin cancers like basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. 

The sun also affects our appearance. Photoaging is a premature aging of the skin that results from prolonged and repeated exposure to UV rays. Changes caused by photoaging — such as premature fine and coarse wrinkles, dyspigmentation, and loss of elasticity — are superimposed on the changes caused by normal, chronologic aging. 

A year ago, I went shopping for a good sunscreen to protect my family. I thought this would be a quick and easy task. However, after spending about four hours reading articles about efficacy, spectrum of UV protection, and photolability, I realized this was confusing even for a physician! I decided to take a closer look into the ingredients in sunscreen. Here are some things I learned about the best ways to protect your skin: 

  • SPF value correlates with UVB protection only. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Slather on an SPF of at least 30. 
  • The most effective sunscreens contain oxybenzone. In Consumer Reports 2019 rankings, the top 10 sunscreens all had oxybenzone.
  • Sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are efficient and widely available, but their use has faced some challenges. These products present a cosmetic issue particularly, if you are like me and do not want a thick white layer of sticky sunscreen clogging your pores. 
  • Proper application is crucial. Use the teaspoon rule: apply more than half a teaspoon to each arm, head, and neck and greater than one teaspoon to each leg, chest, and back. 
  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before you go outside. Reapply at least every two hours. Even with a water-resistant sunscreen you should slather it on again immediately after swimming. 
  • Wear protective clothing. Cover up with wide-brimmed hats and lightweight long-sleeved shirts that protect your back and shoulders. Use sunglasses. 
  • Limit your time outdoors between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun is at its strongest. If you have to be at the beach or pool during peak hours, take frequent breaks in the shade. 

The bottom line is that sunburns are bad for your health. None of us want to look older, be in pain, or put ourselves at risk for skin cancer. While sun avoidance is always the best protection against these harmful UV rays, outdoor occupations and active lifestyles make it impossible for many of us to stay inside. If you want to have some fun in the sun, choose wisely: limit your peak exposure, use protective clothing, and regularly apply sunscreen.