Ask The Doctor

Be Safe in the Sun

Dear Dr. Garner,
I can’t believe summer vacation is here already. I have six kids who are all fair and tend to burn. I hear a lot of confusing things about suntan lotion on TV. Could you help me understand which one is the best;  also, what does SPF mean?
Hope you have a great summer.
Confused Mother about
SPF in Sunset Park

Dear Confused Mother,
There is a lot of information we are bombarded with regarding sunscreen from TV shows, the news, and commercials.
Unfortunately, surveys show that about 70% of people at the beach are there to improve their tan. Only one half of beachgoers use sunscreen.
Sun damage produces skin cancer as well as wrinkles. Ultraviolet (UV) light is absorbed by the skin, and causes chemical reactions to occur (the DNA or genes are damaged). When there is sufficient damage, skin cancer and aging occur. Sunscreen protects against UV light.
There are two types of UV light, type A and type B. It is important to select a sunscreen that protects against both and to use the suntan lotion liberally, applying it at least every two hours. Make sure all exposed areas, particularly the face, ears, hands and arms are covered. One ounce of sunscreen, enough to fill a shot glass, is considered sufficient to cover exposed areas of the body. Even so-called “water–resistant” sunscreen may lose its effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water.
People frequently ask what type of sunscreen is best to use. Creams are best for adults with dry skin, but gels are preferable in hairy areas, such as the scalp. Sticks are good around the eyes. Creams are best for face. Lip balm with UV protection is best for the lips. Sunscreen should be water-resistant and have an SPF of 15. The American Academy of Dermatology seal of recommendation should be printed on the bottle.
Other popular questions are:
Q.  Can I use the sunscreen I had from last summer?
A.  All sunscreens are good for three years. It should be no problem.
Q.  How does suntan lotion work?
A. The sunscreen reflects the UV rays so that they are not fully absorbed by the skin. Chemicals in sunscreen capture the UV rays and block them from entering the skin and causing damage to the DNA.
There is clear evidence that sunscreen helps in preventing sun damage lesions from developing on the face and other areas. These lesions may develop into cancer. There is controversy as to whether sunscreen can prevent other skin cancers, particularly malignant melanoma. Previous exposure as a young child is important in determining one’s risk, as is the severity of previous burns. While there is no guarantee sunscreen will prevent cancer, there is no doubt that it stops wrinkles and prevents many of the most common types. Sunscreen should complement, not replace other protective measures:
• Avoiding the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• Wearing clothing that covers your arms and legs. Also wearing a hat.
• Using sunscreen frequently and liberally, even on cloudy or hazy days.
Q.  What does SPF mean?
A.  SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Sunscreen is rated by its SPF strength. SPFs range from as low as two to greater than 50. The number refers to the ability to stop the sun’s burning rays. It is calculated by comparing the amount of time needed to sunburn sunscreen-protected skin, to the amount of time needed to cause sunburn on unprotected skin.
For example, if a person used sunscreen that had a rating of SPF 5, it would take five times as long to burn if sunscreen were applied correctly, as opposed to skin that was unprotected. While SPF may range all the way up to the 70s, it is not necessary. SPF of 15 provides the required sun block.
Q.  Does sunscreen cause one to have too little Vitamin D?
A.  Most people get enough sunlight to ensure adequate Vitamin D levels from being outdoors for 15 minutes. One should be able to get enough Vitamin D from food or supplements.

Dr. Steven Garner is a Fidelis Care provider who is affiliated with New York Methodist Hospital, Park Slope. He also hosts “Ask the Doctor” on The NET, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. on Channel 97 Time Warner and Channel 30 Cablevision.

Share this article with a friend.