What You Should Know About Sunscreens, Clothing, and Tanning

A dermatologist's perspective on sun protection

Credits: "Tomas Salas at Unspalsh.com"
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Great weather. Check. Swimsuit. Check. Towels. Check. Summer is a time for sunny skies and outdoor fun. Whether we use this time to take a vacation or simply stroll to the local pool, we are bound to get a little extra sunshine. That said, the key to enjoying some safe time outdoors is good sun hygiene.

Sun overexposure can lead to sunburns, sun damage, and skin cancers. In fact, skin cancer is the leading type of cancer and can have deadly consequences. On average, the risk for melanoma skin cancer doubles[1,2] when a person experiences a childhood sunburn although the risk may go up six times if the childhood sunburn was severe with blisters.[3] Good sun hygiene typically encompasses three important principles: 1) avoiding intense sunlight, 2) using sun protective clothing, and 3) applying broad-spectrum sunscreen. But what exactly qualifies as sun protective clothing and how does one know if a sunscreen is broad-spectrum? To help clarify the principles of sun hygiene, here are some answers to the most common questions about sun protection. 

 

How Do I Choose a Sunscreen? Do I Just Pick the Highest SPF?

The choice of sunscreen is important and there are several simple rules that can help with choosing the right sunscreen:

1) Ingredients

This is the most important factor in choosing a sunscreen. Choose a sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection that can block both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone, and ecamsule are examples of broad-spectrum sunscreen ingredients that are approved for use in the United States. 

2) SPF

While SPF ratings are important, SPF only refers to the protection against sunburns that are caused by UVB rays (and a sliver of UVA). The actual SPF you get when applying sunscreen depends on how much and how often you apply. Most people tend to apply sunscreen at one fourth or half of the amount at which it is normally tested.[4] For this reason, it is very important to reapply sunscreens within 15 minutes to give yourself a second coat and more protection. Additionally, the American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreens with an SPF of 30, and it turns out that using sunscreens with a higher SPF does not afford that much more protection than SPF 30 sunscreens that are used diligently.

3) Water resistance

Summer is a time of water activities, be it a swimming pool, a lake, or the beach. Not all sunscreens are tested for water resistance, so be sure to look on the bottle for the “Water Resistant” or “Very Water Resistant” labels. The testing for these sunscreens is not done in chlorinated or salt water, so be sure to re-apply sunscreen as soon as you are out of the pool or ocean.

 

If I Wear Sunscreens, Do I Need to Worry About Sun Protective Clothing?

Absolutely. Sun protective clothing is the most important measure that we have against sun exposure; it’s even better than sunscreens. The best measure is to use both sun protective clothing and sunscreens together, but sun protective clothing is more important.

In choosing sun protective clothing, five factors can affect how well your clothing protects you from sunlight, including color, weight, weave, whether it has been washed, and whether the clothing is wet or dry. The color of the clothing can determine how easily sunlight can get through it. Darker clothing is better at blocking the sun’s rays.[5] Next, choose clothing with a greater weight so that there is more material in it, which will help block UV rays. The weave is also important. The weave refers to how tightly knit the clothing is, and while a tighter weave will block out more light, a looser weave will have more microscopic gaps in it and will let more sunlight pass through. When it comes to cotton, allowing the cotton to shrink after washing and putting it through a dryer will tighten the weave and make the clothing more protective. Finally, some colors, like white, become more transparent when wet. If you or your child is going to be wearing a T-shirt in water at the beach, at the pool, while snorkeling, or if you are going to be playing sports under the sun and sweating, go for darker colors like blue or green instead of white.

There are clothing lines that are specifically developed and rated for protection against the sun with tighter weaves and better resistance to wetness. Learn more about ultraviolet rated clothing here.  

 

Are There Safe Ways to Tan?

While tanning in direct sunlight or in tanning booths is never a great option, there are some alternatives that may still give you the glow that you are looking for. A few options include spray tanning, shade tanning, food tanning, and exercise tanning.

Spray tanning involves spraying a substance onto the skin that reacts to create a darker hue to the skin. It is performed indoors away from sunlight.

Shade tanning involves staying in the shade when outdoors. The sun’s UVA rays can creep into the shade either by scattering in the atmosphere or by bouncing off other substances around you like beach sand. For this reason, you still need to wear sunscreen, even in the shade.

Food tanning involves eating foods that can naturally add color to the skin. One example is foods that are rich in carotenoids,[6] which are naturally occurring molecules in plants that are colorful. Some foods rich in carotenoids include yellow squash, red tomatoes, orange carrots, and orange butternut squash. 

Exercise tanning is just what it sounds like. You get your tan while exercising. Since the sunburn-causing UVB rays are not as intense in the morning or evening, it’s best to get your outdoor exercise at these times. UVA rays will still be abundant and you will end up with a tanner hue. One tip is to go swimming in an outdoor pool in the morning or the evening if you would like to get full body exposure while keeping your body healthy too. Even at these times, sunscreen is a must to prevent overexposure to ultraviolet light.

 

Is There Anything Else That Can Protect Me From Sun Damage?

Research is now showing that there are many supplements that may help bolster sun protection. Some examples include supplementation with an herbal extract from Polypodium leucotomos,[7] the vitamin nicotinamide,[8] and the plant derived compound beta-carotene.[9]

Get more detail on an integrative approach to sun protection with Dermveda’s Sun Protection 101 webinar.

 

References

  1. Gandini S, Sera F, Cattaruzza MS, et al. Meta-analysis of risk factors for cutaneous melanoma: II. Sun exposure. Eur J Cancer.2005;41(1):45-60; PMID: 15617990 Link to research.
  2. Oliveria SA, Saraiya M, Geller AC, et al. Sun exposure and risk of melanoma. Arch Dis Child.2006;91(2):131-138; PMID: 16326797 Link to research.
  3. Zanetti R, Franceschi S, Rosso S, et al. Cutaneous melanoma and sunburns in childhood in a southern European population. Eur J Cancer.1992;28A(6-7):1172-1176; PMID: 1627390 Link to research.
  4. Sivamani RK, Ghiya M, Maibach HI. Shedding light on sunscreens and their labels: Testing policies need to match actual use. Am J Prev Med.2010;38(6):679-681; PMID: 20494247 Link to research.
  5. Liu J, Zhang W. The influence of the environment and clothing on human exposure to ultraviolet light. PLoS One.2015;10(4):e0124758; PMID: 25923778 Link to research.
  6. Alaluf S, Heinrich U, Stahl W, et al. Dietary carotenoids contribute to normal human skin color and UV photosensitivity. J Nutr.2002;132(3):399-403; PMID: 11880562 Link to research.
  7. El-Haj N, Goldstein N. Sun protection in a pill: the photoprotective properties of Polypodium leucotomos extract. Int J Dermatol.2015;54(3):362-366; PMID: 25040452 Link to research.
  8. Surjana D, Damian DL. Nicotinamide in dermatology and photoprotection. Skinmed.2011;9(6):360-365; PMID: 22256624 Link to research.
  9. Kopcke W, Krutmann J. Protection from sunburn with beta-Carotene--a meta-analysis. Photochem Photobiol.2008;84(2):284-288; PMID: 18086246 Link to research.