Spring is finally here – flowers are blooming, the grass needs to be mowed and it’s time to fire up the grill. We’re excited – we love spending time with our families outside, playing, cooking out and simply relaxing. But as medical professionals, we know that the increased exposure to the sun can be problematic, especially for young children. It’s important to pick the best sunscreen and protect yourself and your family.

We put sunscreen on and try to remember to reapply it throughout the day. But we’re often guilty of reapplying on our children and not ourselves. Protection from the sun is crucial to your overall health. Skin cancer rates have been drastically increasing; over the past three decades, more people have had skin cancer than all other cancers combined, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their life.

These statistics are frightening, but the risk is reduced when precautions are taken and sun protection habits are learned early. Read on to learn how the best ways to teach your children to protect themselves from the sun.

What is a burn?

Our society tends to normalize sunburns as “just something that happens” in the summer months – or on a tropical vacation. But sunburns are actually really serious. Here’s why:

A sunburn is the skin’s response to ultraviolet (UV) exposure, whether from the sun or a tanning bed. The burn is indicative of severe damage and for some people, can start to occur in just ten minutes of unprotected exposure.

Initially, the skin becomes red and starts to feel tight – the skin is inflamed and starting to react to the UV rays. Melanin is produced, giving the look of a tan. But the tan is simply the body’s way of trying to stop the UV rays from penetrating deeper, damaging the DNA of the cells. The body can deal with minor amounts of damage from the sun, but repeated burns cause irreversible damage and premature aging.

A person who has had more than five sunburns has a doubled risk for developing melanoma in their lifetime. Around 90% of melanomas are caused by exposure to the sun.

When your sunburn peels, it’s not happening because the skin is “dry” from the burn. Peeling occurs because the body is trying to get rid of the cells damaged by UV exposure. The damaged cells are at risk of becoming cancerous – to protect you, these cells die and peel off.

So how can you protect your body from burns? First, never use tanning beds – they’ve been banned in Brazil and Australia and many countries have passed laws that make it illegal to use them under the age of 18. Second, learn about your options for sun protection. We understand that staying out of the sun entirely isn’t exactly realistic, but there are a number of measures you can take to protect yourself and your family.

The difference between UVA and UVB

While there are many rays emitted by the sun, those that are most damaging are called ultraviolet (UV). The two most basic types of UV rays are UVA and UVB.

UVB rays cause sunburns and play a greater role in causing skin cancers, including malignant melanoma.

UVA rays also cause skin cancer, but they penetrate the skin more deeply. They can cause premature aging including wrinkles. Most tanning beds emit primarily UVA rays – those who use tanning beds before the age of 35 are 75% more likely to develop melanoma.

There are more UVA rays in sunlight than UVB rays, but given the negative effects of both, it is important to protect your skin agains both types.

Sunscreen vs. sunblock

Many people are surprised to learn there is a difference between sunscreen and sunblock. It’s important to understand the difference so you can ensure you pick the best sunscreen or sunblock to protect your skin.

Sunblock is a physical barrier from the sun. It acts as a barrier between the sun and the UV rays from the sun. It works by scattering or reflecting the rays.

Sunscreen is a chemical barrier. It protects the skin by absorbing the rays before they can damage the cells in the dermal layer of your skin.

It’s important to make sure you purchase a product that protects against UVA and UVB rays. You’ll want to choose a product that is broad spectrum – protecting your skin from both types of harmful rays.

When applying sunscreen, most people use far too little product, usually on 20-50% of what they need. You need to be liberal with the product, using around an ounce or more per application.

Your sunscreen should be applied at least 30 minutes before sun exposure, while sunblock instantly provides protection. Your sunscreen/sunblock should be reapplied every two hours. If you’re sweating or in water, you’ll need to apply even more frequently.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for sun protection factor. The SPF rating is calculated by comparing the time it would take to burn unprotected skin vs. sunscreen protected skin. It’s important to remember that no sunscreen can block all rays.

Let’s take SPF 15 as an example. If you usually start to burn in about 20 minutes (without sunscreen), theoretically, using SPF 15 will prevent burning 15 times longer than not using sunscreen. 15 times 20 minutes is 300 minutes, or 5 hours.

But that doesn’t mean you can apply SPF 15 and be okay for 5 hours – no sunscreen can be expected to be effective for longer than two hours. Additionally, just because you aren’t getting red, the UV rays are still penetrating your skin, causing serious damage.

We recommend buying a MINIMUM of SPF 15. Reapply every two hours and minimize sun exposure when the sun is highest (late morning and early afternoon).

I spend a lot of time in the sun; should I see a dermatologist?

Absolutely. Seeing a dermatologist will give you peace of mind and help you formulate a plan to better protect yourself from the sun moving forward.

We understand that it’s scary. Especially if you have or currently use tanning beds, spend a lot of time in the sun or don’t consistently use sunscreen/sunblock. The good news is that while skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, it usually has a positive prognosis when caught early.

If you’re ready to make an appointment, contact your primary care physician (PCP). If you don’t have a PCP, please contact one of the Reynolds Medical Group physician practices to become a patient.