Six Strategies for Summer Sun Safety

by Hema Sundaram, M.D. Health Professional

When I went skiing with my family last month, I took my sun protection to new lengths, donning a black ski mask that, when combined with my goggles and helmet, completely covered my face except for the very tip of my nose which I protected with mineral powder sunscreen.

My children teased me that I looked like a cross between a ninja and a bank robber, but I achieved my aim and returned from my trip free of the patchy facial pigmentation, known as melasma, that has plagued me in the past after strong sun exposure. Though my measures may have been a little extreme, they do illustrate one important sun protection strategy: Make clothing your first line of defense and sunscreen your second. Here are five more strategies to keep you safe from sun damage this summer:

Go high and broad with sunscreen, apply it liberally and reapply as needed: You've probably heard this mantra before. The magic SPF number is 30; sunscreen with this SPF significantly reduces sun damage to your skin cells from one component of the sun's ultraviolet rays, UVB. A sunscreen labeled as broad spectrum or UVA-blocking also protects you from UVA rays which, as I've discussed previously, can be more insidiously damaging than UVB.
Your sunscreen can only do its job fully if you apply at least 2 tablespoons of it to all exposed areas of your body at least 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply it every two hours, and more frequently if you are swimming or sweating.

Take a tip from the Australians: They've significantly reduced their previously very high risk of skin cancer by following a simple little motto: "Between 10 and 3, step under a tree". If you schedule your golf games, swimming sessions, beach games and other outdoor activities earlier or later than these hours, you'll greatly decrease your sun exposure.

Find a sunscreen you'll actually wear: If your sunscreen breaks you out, messes your make-up, makes you smell like a pina colada or look like an oil slick, chances are that you won't wear it regularly. Experiment with different brands and formulations other than the standard creams, such as powders, gels, sprays and sticks, to find sunscreens that you can wear on a daily basis.

The Skin Cancer Foundation web site has a list of sunscreens that carry its seal of recommendation. They range from Rite Aid's economical in-house lotions and sprays to ColoreScience's tinted matt or pearlized mineral powders which are hypoallergenic, noncomedogenic and chemical-free, double as make-up, are easily toted and can be reapplied quickly with the included brush.

Make sunscreen application a daily morning routine: That way, you'll be prepared if you're struck by the urge to do a spot of gardening, for an unexpected lunch alfresco, or wherever else your day may take you. Remember that UVA rays pass through glass, so you need protection even when driving in the car with the windows up or sitting in a sunny office. Sun protection is not just for the beach. Studies show that most of our sun damage occurs from intermittent sun exposure during regular daily activities.

Don't forget your eyes: they're as vulnerable to ultraviolet rays as your skin. Wear UV blocking sunglasses whenever you're outdoors to reduce your risk of developing cataracts later in
life. Experts predict that the explosion in skin cancers that we are currently seeing will soon be mirrored by a sharp increase in the incidence of cataracts.

Hema Sundaram, M.D.
Meet Our Writer
Hema Sundaram, M.D.

Hema Sundaram, M.D., is a dermatologist based in Fairfax, Virginia, who wrote about skincare for HealthCentral.