QUESTION: What sunscreens should I use to protect my skin this summer?
ANSWER: University of Minnesota Health Dermatologic Surgeon Hilary Reich, MD, recommends sunscreen that is SPF 30 or higher with “broad spectrum” coverage that protects against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. UVA rays—also known as long-wave rays—are primarily responsible for causing wrinkles and sunspots on skin, Reich said. UVB rays are the culprits that cause sunburn. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to the development of skin cancer.
Keep to the basics when buying sunscreen, Reich said. Although fragrances and colors may make some sunscreens more appealing, they could contain chemicals that may be irritating. Reich recommends cream that has zinc or titanium as a main ingredient. Sprays can be effective, she said, as long as users take the time to ensure they are getting an even coating on their skin.
“Spray-on sunscreen is not like perfume, you can’t just spray it in the air and walk through the mist and assume you’re protected,” Reich said. “You should spray it on the skin, then rub it in with your hand to ensure you get an even coat.”
Spray-on sunscreen can also be an irritant for eyes and lungs, so Reich recommends that users—particularly parents helping their children—avoid spraying sunscreen directly into the face. Because some of the propellants used in spray-on sunscreen are also flammable, Reich suggests that users be careful around grills, bonfires or other sources of open flame during the summer.
“Spray-on sunscreen can be a useful second tool when applied properly, but it’s probably not the best choice for coverage,” Reich said. “I’d recommend using a cream or lotion first.”
Reapply your sunscreen every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, Reich said, especially on the head, neck, back and lower legs, which usually get the most sun exposure. Reich also recommends purchasing water-resistant sunscreen if you plan on doing any water-related activities.
Peak hours for UV exposure are between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., with some variation depending on the season. Still, it is possible to burn in the mornings and evenings, Reich said.
“Anytime the sun is out, you’re still getting ultraviolet exposure, in particular on those nice, long July days. We still want to make sure we’re protecting ourselves into the evening,” Reich said. If you do burn, keep the burnt area hydrated and use ibuprofen to soothe the inflammation and discomfort, Reich said. Oatmeal baths and cool compresses may also help.
If you suspect that you or a member of your family may be at risk for developing skin cancer, Reich recommends scheduling a baseline skin screening.
“I would recommend coming in and having a dermatologist take a look at you, and then they can determine your risk; whether you really need annual screenings or whether you may be able to go a while in between,” Reich said. “If something new or suspicious were to come up, come on in. That's what we're here for. We're happy to take a look at it.”