Raise your hand if you're confused about the sun and your skin. One moment, we're mandated to cover ourselves head-to-toe in an entire bottle of SPF 100. The next, we're learning how deficient Americans are of the "sun vitamin" (or maybe that's just those evil tanning salons whispering in our ear that we need to bake in order to get our vitamin D). Oh, and how about the recent FDA ruling that SPFs being marked over 50 are total BS? It's enough to make a girl's head spin — or, just enough to make a girl slap on some goop every once in a while and hope for the best.
To help you work through the madness of sun-and-fun season, we reached out to dermatologists Dr. Matthew R. Kelleher, M.D., of Premier Dermatology, and Dr. Doris Day of Day Dermatology and Aesthetics. Both know their stuff on preventing sun damage and ensuring that your skin stays youthful for many years to come. It's time for sun-protection boot camp.
First things first: which sunscreen should you choose, anyway? The current noise about chemical versus mineral sunscreens can make for a confusing shopping experience. Of course, we all want to avoid unnecessary toxins in our skin care routine, but are the all-natural versions as effective as their higher-tech brethren? Our panel votes a resounding yes: "All sunscreens are over-the-counter drugs, and are overseen and approved by the FDA," says Dr. Day. "The idea of chemical or physical is a matter of personal preference." Dr. Kelleher agrees. "Mineral sunscreens such as SkinCeuticals Physical Fusion UV Defense SPF 50 are thorough, safe, and extremely effective filters of the entire UV spectrum," he says. So, feel free to load on the all-natural 'screen...you'll still be covered!
Once you find the perfect sunscreen formula for you…how much do you really need to apply to get the full SPF benefit? According to Dr. Kelleher, the "shot glass-full" guideline still holds true. "An adult should apply approximately once ounce of sunscreen to cover the entire body — about the amount you can hold in the palm of your hand." And, yes, if you're in sun for a prolonged period of time, you're going to to have to make reapplying your full-time job, even if you're using a waterproof formula. "Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every two hours to help you remain protected, or immediately after swimming or excessively sweating," says Dr. Kelleher.
Oh, and regarding the labeling of SPFs: While the FDA has stated that there is not adequate scientific evidence that SPFs marked over 50 are more effective, Dr. Kelleher states that your derm might still recommend higher SPFs, just to be safe. ("Since people often use too little sunscreen, and don't reapply often enough, higher SPF values may be a good idea," he says.) There's no downside to sporting higher numbers — and if you're extremely fair or have a history of skin cancer in your family, you might want to go ahead and sport the 100+.
When you're not at the beach (which, for us, is more often than we'd like), it can be tempting to think that you can go bare with little consequence. After all, with all of this talk about vitamin D, it could theoretically make sense that you can get away with some minor, unprotected exposure to the sun every day — everything in moderation, right? The answer from our derms is a resounding notsomuch. "People simply cannot overdo sun protection — this is evidenced by the increasing skin cancer rates," says Dr. Kelleher. "The best and safest solution to vitamin D deficiency is taking extra vitamin D through supplements or food sources."
And, for the record, you can definitely experience significant sun damage from minor everyday exposure if you're not religious about daily SPF application. Says Dr. Day: "It's better to always wear sunscreen, because you may end up outside for longer than you realize. I see so many patients with sunburns who say that they didn't realize how long they were out — it's easy to lose track of time, or underestimate how strong the sun is."
Speaking of burns, yes, they are serious. Says Dr. Day, "A person’s risk for melanoma doubles if they've had five or more sunburns. Every sunburn damages the DNA of your skin cells, and over time, that can lead to premature aging and skin cancer." It's worth greasing yourself up like a baked potato to avoid those damaging rays — and a little sheen on the skin is totally sexy in warm weather, right?
If you do end up with a sunburn — hey, it happens to the best of us — make sure that you treat it properly, and watch out for any danger signs. Dr. Day suggests cooling the skin with compresses or a cool bath, taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, and applying topical cortisone cream to a mild sunburn — but if you start to feel woozy or experience a significant change in your core body temperature, it's time to hit the hospital.
Lastly, we had to know this: Is it true that you get most of your sun damage by age eighteen? The debate is still ongoing. Dr. Kelleher answers in the affirmative: "According to published studies, Americans acquire approximately 23 percent of their sun damage by age eighteen, and get about ten percent more every decade after that." Conversely, Dr. Day claims that this is no longer true. But, dermatologists are unanimous in their statement that sun damage is steadlily accumulated over one's lifetime. "All sun exposure counts, and it is cumulative," says Dr. Day. "But, the good news is that when you protect your skin from the sun, it can repair some of the past damage that you've accumulated — which will make your skin look naturally more beautiful and youthful over time."