Sun safety: the experts give their tips on how sunscreen can protect the whole family this summer

A woman applies sun cream on her body on the beach of Scheveningen, in The Hague, The Netherlands. (Reuters pic)

NEW YORK: Many of us will soon be jetting off on vacation, making now a good time to brush up on our sunscreen knowledge to protect ourselves from burning or even worse, skin cancer.

To help you stay safe in the sun this summer here we round up some advice from the experts and break down some of the myths about sunscreen.

What SPF should I choose?

“The sun protection factor (SPF) number indicates the time it will take for UVB rays to redden your skin. I tell my patients to choose SPF 30 or higher because most people do not apply sunscreen as directed,” says Sarah Arron, MD, Ph.D., from the University of California, USA. Arron also advises also wearing a lip balm with SPF 15 and choosing sunglasses with UV blockers in the lenses to protect eyes.

What does broad-spectrum mean?

It means the sunscreen provides protection from both types of damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation — UVA and UVB, explains Arron. Both contribute to skin aging and skin cancers. UVB is the main sunburn and suntanning ray, and it can come from the sun or a tanning salon. UVA penetrates deeper into the skin, causing premature aging and wrinkling. The SPF number measures only UVB protection, so you need to make sure your sunscreen specifies UVA protection as well.

Can sunscreen cause sensitivities?

If you are allergic to chemicals in sunscreen, the Canadian Dermatology Association recommends using mineral sunscreens containing titanium and zinc oxide, which reflect rather than absorb the sun’s rays and are much less likely to cause a reaction for those with allergies or sensitive skin.

“Some of my patients prefer minerals due to concern about chemical safety and a preference for a natural approach. The downside is that these may feel thicker and heavier and can leave a ghost-like sheen on the face,” says Aaron.

Chemical sunscreens include avobenzone and oxybenzone in their ingredients and are usually formulated to feel lighter. However, neither is more protective than the other.

Can children wear sunscreen?

Robert Gniadecki, from the University of Alberta, Canada, doesn’t recommend using sunscreen on babies, who says they should be kept out of the sun. The FDA agrees, advising that babies under 6 months old should not wear sunscreen and instead should be covered up with light clothing and kept in the shade or out of the sun, especially between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm.

Children should also be wearing a hat and clothing that covers up the skin, and not stay in the sun for too long.

Do people with dark skin need to wear sunscreen?

Yes, says Arron, who explains that when the sun affects our skin, there are two levels of damage. One is immediate, which we see on the skin as sunburn and mostly affects lighter-skinned individuals. As individuals with darker skin may not get sunburned they may think their skin is protected, but there’s a second kind of damage that leads to loss of elasticity and premature aging of skin, as well as DNA mutations in the cells that may ultimately cause skin cancer.

Will using sunscreen affect my vitamin D levels?

Direct sun exposure on our skin helps our bodies produce vitamin D, which has a variety of positive health benefits. However, for those worried that exposing themselves to the sun will lead to burning, Gniadecki has some good news.

“There is good research on this: the amount of sun exposure you need to produce vitamin D is very little — just 10 minutes,” says Gniadecki, who advises going sunscreen-free for this amount of time each day to top up vitamin D levels.