Each year we observe “National Sunscreen Day” towards the end of May, a time to recognize the serious impact ultraviolet (UV) rays can have on all of us regardless of age, ethnic group, or season. The specific “impact” being the most common type of cancer in the United States, skin cancer, with melanoma being its deadliest form. The majority of melanomas are thought to be caused by too much exposure to UV light, either from the sun or from artificial sources, like tanning beds.
Thankfully, there are several ways to protect yourself and your loved ones from the dangers of UV exposure, be it during a long day at the beach or while performing everyday tasks and activities even, when it’s very cloudy. Use this article as your guide not only on National Sunscreen Day or during the summer, but each and every day to help support regular sun safety and protection.
What are the benefits of sunscreen?
Sunscreen is an important element of your sun protection routine, and it impacts all of us. It doesn’t matter if you’re very pale or darker, UV rays impact all races and ethnicities regardless of skin type. When used as directed, sunscreen is proven to decrease the risk of skin cancers and pre-cancers such as the treatable Basal cell carcinoma, sunburn, and helps prevent premature skin aging.
Over five million people are treated for skin cancer each year, according to the CDC, at a cost of over $8 billion, with most cases of skin cancer found in people over 65 years old. Even more concerning, as you age your risk of developing melanoma skyrockets.
But the good news is that many incidences of skin cancer can be greatly decreased with correct and regular usage of sunscreen.
How much sunscreen should I use?
Sunscreen is very useful in preventing the negative effects of UV rays, but those benefits are reduced or erased if you’re not applying it correctly. To get the full broad-spectrum protection out of your sunscreen, apply one ounce—about a full shot glass—to your entire body. Most people apply less than half of that amount, which diminishes protection.
Sunscreen should be applied each and every day you’re out in the sun, and in the event you’re only covering certain exposed areas like your face, as opposed to your full body, make sure the exposed area is fully covered.
No matter the activity, keep in mind that applying once isn’t enough to maintain a successful sun protection routine during full days in the sun.
How often should sunscreen be reapplied?
The general rule is that sunscreen should be reapplied every few hours, but it really depends on your activities and other factors. For instance, if you plan to swim or anticipate a hot day where you’ll be sweating heavily, you’ll want to apply more sunscreen more often. If those factors aren’t an issue, an ounce every two hours should suffice.
And whether you’re putting sunscreen on the first time or reapplying, it’s best to do so inside if possible, which limits distractions and helps to ensure you’ve adequately covered all areas of exposed skin.
Should I use sunscreen or sunblock?
Most of us use sunscreen instead of sunblock, and while both are used for sun protection, there are differences that might make you favor one solution over the other.
Sunscreen filters out the sun’s harmful UV rays, while sunblock reflects them. Skin type matters when it comes to protection. For people with sensitive skin, sunblock with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are better tolerated. People who have skin conditions, such as rosacea or allergy-prone skin, should avoid products that contain fragrances, preservatives, and oxybenzone or PABA, which are often found in sunscreens.
What should I look for when picking sunscreen?
Before you try a new sunscreen or sunblock, make sure you read the label to ensure you’re getting the protection you need and avoid ingredients you may be sensitive to.
It’s also important to pay attention to both the level of protection the sunscreen promotes along with closely adhering to its directions. You won’t be fully protected if the sunscreen is inadequate for your needs or if you apply it incorrectly.
When looking at the label, make sure your sunscreen has “broad-spectrum protection.” This means it will protect against the UV rays that sunscreen was originally designed for, in addition to the rays which sunblock is most associated with protecting you from. All sunscreens indicate a sun protection factor (SPF). It’s widely recommended to choose one that offers an SPF of 30 or higher and is water-resistant if you intend to swim or anticipate sweating a lot.
Does a higher SPF provide better protection?
It’s worth noting that higher SPF sun protection will provide more protection from harmful rays, but remember that the higher you go above 30, the smaller the difference becomes. SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97% of UV rays, SPF 50 sunscreens about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%. No sunscreen will fully protect you, but by properly applying a broad spectrum protection sunscreen along with taking other preventative measures, you can come close.
Sunscreen is only a part of sun protection
For kids and younger people, an immediate benefit of using sunscreen is halting premature aging of the skin. While for elderly people—who make up the majority of those with skin cancer—regular use of sun protection can reduce the risk of all skin cancers, including its most serious form, melanoma.
But regardless of your stage in life, sunscreen should be viewed as only one part of protecting yourself from harmful UV rays. There are other things you can do to protect yourself from the sun, including:
- Staying in the shade
- Wearing a wide-brimmed hat
- Wearing clothing to the ankles
- Wearing a long-sleeved shirt
- Wearing UV-blocking sunglasses
Whatever you thought of sunscreen before, now you know it’s an important part of your everyday sun protection routine, not just when you’re at the beach. And it’s worth it to get those good habits going as early as possible.
original publication: May 2021
updated publication: March 2022