Why Topical Sunscreen is Important to Your Skin Health
Preventing Sunburns, Skin Damage, and Worse
Nothing quite undermines a fun day in the sun like dealing with a bad sunburn the next morning. Aloe gel can lessen the sting, but by then the damage to your skin has already been done. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US, and according to the CDC, by age 70 one in five people will have developed a form of it.
This summer–and always–skin health should be a priority. To maintain proper skincare in the sun we need to know what to look for in a sunscreen, how to apply it correctly, and other preventative measures we can take alongside it.
All the Skincare Under the Sun
For most of us, the extent of our knowledge on sunscreen is to put it on 15-30 mins before going outside, and reapply at least every 2 hours. You may also know to use water-resistant or waterproof sunscreen if you’re swimming or sweating. While these are all true–and great rules to follow!–there is much more to proper preventative skincare against ultraviolet radiation.
How to Choose the Best Sunscreens for Skin Health
You might be tempted to buy sunscreen with the highest SPF rating and call it a day, but that won’t help you build healthy habits. Instead, opt for sunscreens with SPF 30; that’s enough to block 97% of UVB radiation, but encourages frequent reapplication instead of misleading you into thinking you’re fully protected all day.
What is UVB radiation? In simple terms, these are the invisible light rays that cause sunburn. However, you also want protection from UVA rays: these are 500 times more common in sunlight than UVB and they penetrate your skin deeper, causing skin aging and skin cancer. Unfortunately, traditional sunscreens tend to only block UVB radiation. For actual protection, look for sunscreens labeled with “broad-spectrum” to provide skincare against both types.
Of course, sunscreen on its own won’t win the fight against the sun. It’s best to add a SPF 30+ lip balm to your protective kit, as well as wearing sunglasses, a wide-brimmed hat, and tightly-woven clothing that covers as much of your skin as is comfortable. Seek shade from 10am-4pm, when ultraviolet rays are the strongest. We’ll cover some other things the ideal sunscreen should include later in this article, but these are the basics.
What Sunscreen Protects Your Skin From
It should come as no surprise that being out in the sun unprotected can cause sunburn: a painful, itchy nuisance that can blister and lead to damage causing skin cancer, premature aging, and more. If you manage to catch it early enough, over-the-counter topical steroids can help prevent some of the damage.
Repeated, unprotected sun exposure can also cause damage to your elastin, collagen, and skin cells. This can lead to premature signs of aging, such as discoloration, wrinkles, and a leathery appearance. Typically this “photoaging” is more of a concern among those who spend their 20s or 30s in the sun without sunscreen. The most prominent symptom is “sun spots” or “liver spots,” areas of skin discoloration that usually appear on your head and hands. All of these skin health issues are preventable with proper use of sunscreen.
Regardless, these skin health issues are primarily aesthetic. The real danger of unprotected sun exposure is skin cancer, one of the most common cancers among young adults in the US. Melanoma is the most deadly of these, and rates of diagnosis have increased dramatically over the last few decades. Some sun here and there won’t kill you (and in fact is very good for you), but repeated sun exposure without protective skincare can put you in danger.
Lastly, sun damage is particularly important to prevent among those with sensitive skin, such as people with psoriasis or rosacea. If you are prone to redness to begin with, sunburns and other skin damage will likely be more painful for you. Luckily, that’s what sunscreen is for! You may also want to consider skincare products to treat inflammation in case of sunburn, as UV rays cause both redness and inflammation in the skin.
Common Mistakes with Sunscreen
Officially, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends daily, all-day, full-body use of sunscreen whenever you head outside. Unless you have a dedicated sunscreen budget and don’t mind smelling like the beach 24/7, this is not a feasible recommendation for most people. However, that doesn’t mean to just forget about your sunscreen in the back of the medicine cabinet. Plenty of easy steps you can take will pay huge dividends toward your future skin health.
For example, most of us do not apply enough sunscreen at a time to get the full effect. Experts recommend 1 oz of sunscreen at a time, or enough to fill a shot glass; most of us use half that amount and should be mindful to increase it.
Additionally, experts recommend applying sunscreen to your entire body before dressing for the day. While this is impractical for most, an effective compromise would be to apply sunscreen to areas that might become exposed during the course of the day. For example, if you’re wearing a skirt that hikes up when you sit or a flowy loose top, be sure to cover anywhere your clothes might shift.
Sunscreen isn’t just for bright summer days, either; even on overcast days, 80% of the sun’s rays pass through the clouds to damage your skin. Preventative skincare is important during the winter months, as well. Although it seems counterintuitive to break out the sunscreen when there’s snow on the ground, snow actually reflects 80% of UV rays back at you. This effect is heightened at high altitude, so don’t forget the sunscreen when packing for a family ski trip!
Lastly, all skin types need protection from the sun to prevent lasting damage: including darker skin tones that are better adapted to sun exposure. We’re still learning how the sun affects us all a little differently. Scientists used to think that redheads were at greater risk due to their generally fair skin, but it turns out that people with red hair actually have a MC1R gene mutation that includes a genetic propensity for skin cancer. The moral here is to not take risks with the sun and to always wear sunscreen; babies are especially susceptible.
Beauty Without the Pain
Unfortunately makeup, even with SPF, is not a sufficient alternative to actual sunscreen. Unless you’re willing to use an entire ounce of makeup at a time, the light coating offers very little protection. Thankfully, you don’t have to make any major changes to your skincare routine. Sunscreen can be applied before or after makeup, although some people find it easier to put sunscreen on first.
While organic and all-natural sunscreens are not typically more effective than what you find at the drug store on vacation, they do have other important benefits. Natural sunscreens have fewer chemicals in them that might damage your skin or impact coral reefs. Good terms to look for are “mineral,” “physical,” and “natural;” all of which usually describe sunscreens that use minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to reflect UV rays. “Reef-safe” sunscreens help reduce harm to our oceans, and can be the only option in places that have banned active ingredients contributing to coral bleaching–such as Hawaii, starting in January 2021.
Enjoy the Sun!
Now that you’re armed with knowledge, go soak up some vitamin D! The sun is our friend, as long as we take smart steps to protect against its power.