June 20, 2017

Column: Choosing and using sunscreen

Courtesy of Reliant Medical Group
Shawn Eck, advanced practitioner, Reliant Medical Group

It's that time of year -- when we all remind ourselves, and each other, about the importance of sun protection. Inevitably, some of us still get sunburns, or worse, heat or sun stroke – even on cloudy days. To prevent all of this from happening, stay hydrated, and remember these other bits of advice as the days get warmer and the potential for sun-related health issues increase.

Choosing sunscreen

Before selecting a sunscreen, it's important to understand their composition and how they work. Sunscreens typically fall into two categories: mineral-based and chemical-based. Mineral-based sunscreen -- often referred to as sunblock -- is designed to sit on top of the skin and deflect harmful rays that cause sunburn. They typically contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and offer the strongest protection against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Although mineral-based products are generally more effective, it's important to reapply periodically, as exposure to water and sweat can wash away the sunscreen. Chemical-based sunscreen contains compounds which protect you by absorbing and altering ultraviolet waves of the sun. They are designed to penetrate the skin and take about 20 minutes to become effective. Some sunscreens utilize a mixture of mineral-based and chemical-based ingredients, offering the best of both products.

When choosing a SPF (sun protection factor), consider the duration and type of exposure you'll experience. If you're planning to sit on the beach or the deck for an extended period of time, use SPF 30 or higher. If you're working around the yard or only plan to be in the sun for a short period of time, use at least SPF 15. If you have children who are under six months of age, they should be physically protected from the sun instead of using sunscreen. And remember, summer isn't the only time you should wear sunscreen. You need protection from the sun's damaging rays all year long.

Using sunscreen

Sunscreen is only effective if used properly, so it's important to apply product adequately and at the correct time before being exposed to the sun. Always be sure to check the expiration date on the sunscreen you have at home, as it can degrade with time, reducing its effectiveness.

As a rule, apply at least one ounce of sunscreen -- about the amount in a shot glass -- to cover your body, and be sure you have a thick, even coat on all areas of exposed skin. It's a good idea to reapply the sunscreen every couple of hours to ensure continued protection. If you're swimming or sweating, reapply more frequently.

Protecting seniors and children

As skin ages, it becomes more delicate and less able to protect itself, rendering it more vulnerable to sun damage. Plus some prescription medications, which many seniors take, can increase sensitivity to the sun.

Research shows that children who suffer just one severe sunburn may be twice as likely to get skin cancer at some point in their lives. Experts believe that two-thirds of American children are not adequately protected from the sun. If you want your children to avoid a future bout with skin cancer, it's vital to protect them when they are young. So don't forget sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses and protective clothing for your children any time they are out in the sun.

Always be mindful of changes to your skin

One of the biggest dangers of too much sun (besides wrinkles and brown spots) are actinic keratoses. These

scaly growths and lesions can turn into skin cancer if left untreated. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, and the most important reason to protect yourself from getting too much sun. During an exam or physical, always point out any new or changing moles or spots on your skin to your medical provider, including areas that aren't typically exposed to sunlight – there's a chance they could be skin cancer.

Shawn Eck is an advanced practitioner in Reliant Medical Group's Dermatology department. He is certified in dermatology by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

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