Summer Skin Care
By: Holly L. Thacker, MD • Posted on May 23, 2023
The Harmful Effects of Too Much Sun Exposure
We joyously welcome the summer season for its warmer weather, vacations and sun-bathing by the pool or beach. Indeed, sunlight has health benefits including the synthesis of vitamin D and its mood elevation. However, as with most things, too much of anything can be detrimental. Sun exposure can lead to harmful effects on the skin including:
- Accelerated aging (wrinkles, sun spots, “age spots")
- Burns (especially in fair skinned individuals)
- Skin cancer (basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer and melanoma)
- Melasma (the so called “mask of pregnancy” is from a combination of high hormone levels and UV light exposure)
The damaging effects of sunlight come from the ultraviolet radiation, which can be categorized as UVA or UVB depending on the wavelength. The shorter the wavelength, the more harmful the radiation.
- UVB has a short wavelength and constitutes approximately 5% of the sun’s radiation.
- UVA are the longest and comprise 95% of the sun’s radiation.
Although UVB is more harmful, both UVA and UVB can cause:
- aging of the skin
- darkened skin pigmentation
- skin cancer
As a teen or adult look for a sunscreen that blocks BOTH UVA and UVB that contains meroxyl, which is in Anthelios and Neutrogena sunscreens.
The Importance of Sunscreen
Most people are aware that sunscreen is important to protect against the development of skin cancer. But, what exactly is sunscreen? What qualifies as broad-spectrum? Are they really water resistant? How do you properly apply sunscreen?
Sunscreens are topically applied sprays, creams, gels or sticks and can either block or absorb the sun’s radiation. Sunscreens contain either organic or inorganic filters. Many of the commercially available sunscreens are actually organic filters. For example, Mexoryl XS is a combination of multiple different organic filters that work to absorb both UVA and UVB wavelengths. People with sensitive skin may react to the organic sunscreens and thus elect to use the less irritating inorganic sunscreens.
These sunscreens use minerals such as zinc oxide to block or absorb UV radiation and better tolerated than the organic sunscreens. For the same reason, these inorganic sunscreens may be more appropriate for use in toddlers and infants greater than 6 months old. Infants under 6 months should not use sun screen or be exposed to prolonged sunlight. Talk to your pediatrician about your baby’s vitamin D needs.
SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of the sunscreen’s ability to protect against UVB rays only. To ensure that you are purchasing a product that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, opt for a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater.
- SPF 15 = 93% UVB absorption
- SPF 30 = 97% UVB absorption
- SPF 50= 98% UVB absorption
Applying Sunscreen Properly
Although, you may be using sunscreen, only proper use will provide the protection you need to guard against aging, pigmentation and cancer. Research suggests that despite widespread use of sunscreen, most people are not applying it properly! As the old adage goes: if you are going to do something, do it well! The average sized adult will require 1 ounce of sunscreen to adequately cover the sun-exposed areas of the body (1 ounce is equivalent to the volume of a shot glass).
- The sunscreen product requires “priming” to activate on the skin and should be applied 15-30 minutes prior to going outside.
- Re-application of sunscreen is recommended every 2 hours with vigorous activity or swimming or sweating.
- The best sunscreens are water resistant and can be labeled as either “water-resistant” or “very water-resistant.”
- Those that are “water-resistant” are effective for 40 minutes of water activity whereas those that are “very water-resistant” are effective for 80 minutes of water activity.
- It’s a good idea to wear big hats and protective clothing to limit sun damage to the skin.
The Benefits of Sun Exposure
Despite all the measures we take to protect ourselves against the sun’s radiation, there are indeed benefits to sun exposure. A major benefit is the cutaneous production of active vitamin D.
If you live in colder or more temperate climates, supplementation with additional vitamin D, particularly during winter, can compensate for the lack of adequate sun exposure. And with age, the skin converts precursors in the skin to vitamin D3 less efficiently. A 25-OH vitamin D level can be ordered by your physician if there is a concern about vitamin D levels. As you protect your skin against the sun, you may have lower levels of vitamin D which may in turn increase:
- cancer risks
- many other medical conditions
Now that we are in these glorious sun kissed months of summer, we should take these active steps to boost youthful skin appearance, protect against dull, discolored, and dry hair, prevent skin cancer, reduce solar aging and maximize our enjoyment of the warmer weather!
Be Strong. Be Healthy. Be in Charge!
-Holly L. Thacker, MD
About Holly L. Thacker, MD, FACP
Holly L. Thacker, MD, FACP is nationally known for her leadership in women’s health. She is the founder of the Cleveland Clinic Specialized Women’s Health Fellowship and is currently the Professor and Director of the Center for Specialized Women’s Health at Cleveland Clinic and Lerner College of Medicine at Case Western Reserve University. Her special interests are menopause and related medical problems including osteoporosis, hormone therapy, breast cancer risk assessment, menstrual disorders, female sexual dysfunction and interdisciplinary women’s health. Dr. Thacker is the Executive Director of Speaking of Women’s Health and the author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Menopause.
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