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Staying safe under the sun: How to choose and use sunscreen

How to prepare for sun protection every day
6 minute read
May 5, 2021
Hazel Team
The editorial staff at Hazel are a diverse group of writers and professionals.

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As the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, many families head outdoors to enjoy the summer. Being outside is a great way to get exercise, destress, and spend time with family. Being outside also means that you should protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Exposure to the sun is the most common cause of skin cancer, and anyone, no matter their skin tone, can get skin cancer. It’s important to prepare for sun protection every day, even if you aren’t planning on being outside for long. The sun can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes, and one bad sunburn in childhood doubles the risk of skin cancer later in life. 

Fortunately, taking proactive sun protection steps, like wearing a hat, sitting in the shade, and always wearing sunscreen, can prevent most skin cancers. Sunscreen is a non-prescription drug intended to protect skin from harmful rays. You should not use DIY sunscreen or sun protection products that the FDA has not approved. Choosing the right sunscreen for your family is important. Our doctors have shared tips, recommendations and help you make sense of all the language on a sunscreen bottle.

Be sure to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen.

Broad-spectrum sunscreens provide sun protection from both UVA (aging) rays and UVB (burning) rays. All sunscreen products protect against UVB rays. Broad-spectrum sunscreen also protects against UVA rays (suntans). Broad-spectrum sunscreen can prevent:

  • Skin cancer
  • Early skin damage (premature age spots, wrinkles, and sagging skin)
  • Sunburn

Any sunscreen that isn’t broad spectrum must have a warning that it only protects against sunburn. 

Look for SPF 30 or higher.

SPF stands for sun protection factor. You can also think of SPF as sunburn protection factor. The SPF number measures approximately how long a person can be in the sun before UVB rays begin to burn their skin. 

For example, if your skin starts to redden in 15 minutes with no sunscreen, an SPF 30 will theoretically allow you to stay in the sun 30 times longer without getting burned. This math is based on average data, and the estimate can change based on time of day, time of year, weather conditions, your skin, and how well you’ve applied the sunscreen.

Most doctors recommend at least SPF 30 for outdoor activities. When SPF 30 is applied correctly, it will protect your skin from about 96% of the UV rays that cause sunburn. A higher SPF number provides more protection from sunburns, but no sunscreen can protect your skin 100%.

Active family? Look for water-resistant/sweat-resistant sunscreen.

Water-resistant sunscreen protects your skin from the sun even when it is wet. When properly applied, it can protect your skin during water activities like swimming in a pool, running through sprinklers, or sweating. Water-resistant sunscreen can stay in place longer in wet conditions, so it’s ideal for busy swimmers or exercising. 

There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. You’ll need to take a break from these activities to reapply water-resistant sunscreen every 40 or 80 minutes (depending on the water-resistance level). 

Check the expiration date.

Look for the sunscreen’s expiration date. If you can’t see the date, remember that sunscreen lasts no longer than three years. The shelf life is even shorter if your sunscreen was exposed to high temperatures. Expired sunscreen will not provide adequate protection.

Find a sunscreen that you like. 

There is a good sunscreen for every skin type. If a family member has sensitive skin, don’t skip the sunscreen. Try one formulated for their skin type or ask a doctor. If Hazel is available in your school, you can reach out to a Hazel doctor with your questions.

Now that you’ve got the highest level of sun protection, be sure your family uses sunscreen correctly: 

1. Use FDA-approved sunscreen every day.

It’s best to use sunscreen every day, even when it’s cloudy, or you are only outside for a few minutes at a time. It’s essential to use sunscreen if you are going to be outdoors for an extended period.  

2. Don’t hold back when it comes to applying sunscreen.
An average-sized person needs at least one ounce of sunscreen to cover the body and about a ½ teaspoon to cover your face and neck. Obviously, this will vary by age and size, but this is an excellent place to start.

3. Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going into the sun.  

Sunscreen can take up to half an hour to absorb on your skin. Remember to apply sunscreen to those forgettable spots: the back of the neck, ears, the tops of feet, and on lips. 

4. Reapply sunscreen throughout the day.
Sunscreen wears off throughout the day. To continue protecting skin from the sun, you should reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or after:

  • Toweling off
  • Sweating or being in the water (depending on water resistance)

As you and your family enjoy this summer, remember that sunscreen shouldn’t be your only defense. You can combine sunscreen with other sun-safety approaches, like covering up with clothing, staying in the shade, wearing a hat, and scheduling activities to avoid times of day when the sun is most intense. 

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