How to Protect Your Skin Against Sun Damage

Brian Young

by Brian Young | August 16, 2010 @ 04:00PM

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damageskinYou've heard it a million times. If you're going to spend the day in the sun, wear sunscreen! Sun bathing may be a favorite pastime to many Americans, but it is not without consequence. Ultraviolet rays from the sun cause damage to unprotected skin. The more sun exposure you get, the more damaging its effects can be. (And this goes for tanning salons, too!) For some people, leaving the skin unprotected may result in skin cancers. But you can reduce skin damage and the risk of skin cancer caused by the sun by following some simple rules of sun protection. Here's what you need to know:

UV Rays and the Skin

The sun emits wavelengths of light called UVA and UVB rays, both of which can damage the skin. UVA rays can have long-lasting effects, and the strength of these rays remains fairly constant throughout the entire year. No matter how hot or cold it is outdoors, you're always getting the same amount of exposure. UVA rays can eventually cause skin cancer and produce aging effects such as wrinkles and loose, sagging skin.

UVB rays do not penetrate the skin as deeply as UVA rays. However, they are often responsible for sunburn, which, in turn, can increase the risk of melanoma, a potentially fatal skin cancer. UVB rays can also cause all other types of skin cancer. And, unlike UVA rays, UVB does not carry the same intensity year round. These rays are strongest in the summer, when you are more likely to burn.

Sunscreen Protection

Because of the sun's skin-damaging properties, it is always a good idea to put on sunscreen before spending prolonged periods outdoors. But with all of the different brands and types of lotions, it's a bit difficult to know which are best.

Make sure the bottle says "broad-spectrum" protection. This means that the product will reduce exposure to both UVA and UVB rays. You should also know something about SPF, or Sun Protection Factor. This is an FDA-approved rating system for determining how protective a certain sunscreen is. In general, you should always use a product with an SPF of 15 or higher. To determine how much time you can spend in the sun with your particular sunscreen, multiply the SPF number by twenty (the number of minutes before unprotected skin will start to burn). This means that with an SPF of 15 you can spend 300 minutes in the sun before you start to burn.

There are several types of special and high-protection kinds of sunscreen available for people who have trouble with allergies, or need extra protection. Always read the labels to make sure you are getting the right kind of protection.

PABA and PABA-free -- are common yet highly confusing terms on sunscreen labels. PABA stands for paraaminobenzoic acid, a chemical that can protect skin from the sun. However, PABA also stains clothes and causes allergic reactions in some individuals. Newer PABA-free products offer comparable sun protection. If you are interested in PABA-free sunscreen, look for products that contain oxybenzone, octyl methyl cinnamate, and cinoxate.

Zinc Oxide -- That highly visible white film on the nose and lips of lifeguards –is one of the most effective sunscreens available, and it's completely natural, non-toxic and waterproof. Many commercial sun blocks advertise UVA protection, but they may not contain an adequate amount. In comparison, zinc oxide offers a high level of UVA blockage. Newer formulations of zinc oxide are less noticeable, too.

Applying Sunscreen

Apply the sunscreen at least 30 minutes before going outside. Then, continue to add about an ounce of sunscreen every two hours in order to maintain a safe level of protection.

Be sure to apply the lotion to all of the parts of your body that will be exposed to direct sunlight. You may also want to put some on under shirts and shorts, as clothing does not always completely block the sun's rays. Don't forget the neck, nose, and the tips of the ears.

You can also purchase special UV protecting lip balms at almost any local grocery or drug store. There are also special spray-on sun-blocks for areas of the scalp that are balding or thinning.

Remember that sporadic sunscreen use isn't very effective. In fact, you may burn worse if you begin the summer wearing sunscreen, and then start forgetting mid-summer. Be consistent! Apply sunscreen every time you decide to spend the day out in the sun.

Other Sun Protection

Sunscreen reduces the exposure to harmful UV rays, but it does not block them completely. The only way to really avoid all photodamage is to stay out of the sun completely. For most individuals, this isn't a reasonable option. However, keeping certain parts of your body out of the sun is possible. Wearing protective clothing is a great way to keep the skin safe and covered.

Most people do not realize that typical summertime clothing does not stop all UV rays. Light shirts and shorts may offer an SPF equivalent as little as 5 or 9. If you do not apply sunscreen all over your body, your skin could see the effects later in life.

However, there are a number of clothing options that offer SPF protection as high as 30. If you are interested in these specialized products take a look at or

Final Words of Warning

The effects of the sun on a person's appearance can be dramatic later in life. Skin cancer is a disease that affects millions of Americans per year. High-risk individuals include people with fair or light skin. Those who freckle easily are included in this group. If you have light green or blue eyes, and are red or blonde haired, you should also be especially careful. If a family member has a history of skin cancer, you may be at a greater risk for developing it yourself. Finally, if you live in an environment that is often dry and sunny or at a high altitude, you may be exposed to more harmful UV rays than the average person. The higher you are, the closer you are to the Earth's ozone layer, where the sun's rays are most intense.

A nice, warm sunny day needn't be something to fear. With the right kind of protection and knowledge, you can continue to play outdoors without great concern. But be consistent and generously apply the sun protection product you decide to use. Then, go outside, and have some fun! 

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