August is Summer Sun Safety Month, an ideal time to think about the effectiveness of your sun protection habits. Protecting your body from the damaging rays of the sun has always been a serious health issue, but with SPF numbers ranging from two to 100 and new "sunscreen" pills hitting the market, it's surprisingly difficult to understand how much and what type of protection is best. It's important to know the facts so you don't get 'burned' by your sunscreen now and in the future.
For instance, when it comes to sunscreen, more is better. Many people don't slather on enough sunscreen to get the full protective coverage they need. Look for a product labeled "broad spectrum" with an SPF of 30 for the best protection against skin cancer. Apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before sun exposure and use about 1 oz. of sunscreen for the body, which is enough to fill a shot glass. Reapply that same amount every two hours. For a day at the beach or the pool, one person should use about half of an 8 oz. bottle.
I see a lot of patients who think sunscreen with a higher SPF means they can apply less and stay out in the sun longer. That's not true, and SPF numbers can be deceiving. For example, SPF 15 blocks about 93 percent of harmful sun rays, and SPF 30 blocks about 97 percent. Thus, doubling the SPF doesn't necessarily provide that much more protection. I tell my patients that SPF 30 is usually sufficient for most people, and the focus should be on reapplication every two hours or sooner, if you're sweating a lot or in the water.
Keep in mind that no sunscreens are "waterproof." If a lotion is labeled, "water resistant," the FDA now requires manufacturers to designate how long the sunscreen is protective while swimming or sweating.
I also caution patients about using spray-on sunscreen. It's a great option, but it can be difficult to get an even application. Make sure you spray an even coat across your skin, holding the bottle about 4-5 inches from your body. Be careful not to inhale spray sunscreen. When applying it to the head or neck, spray it into your hands first and then rub it onto the face, neck or scalp.
Although researchers are trying to develop a true "sunburn pill," the ones available today are only supplements, not federally approved medications. While they may seem like a safe alternative to sunscreen, there's no real evidence that pills alone offer protection from the sun's rays. Antioxidants in some supplements have shown promise, but before taking them you should talk to your doctor, as they could interact with other medications.
In addition to sunscreen, I advise patients to use other methods to protect themselves from the sun, such as clothing that covers their arms and legs, wide-brimmed hats that protect the face, head and ears, and sunglasses that have 100 percent UV protection. You can also buy clothing that has sun protection in it, called UPF or ultraviolet protection factor. It's also a good idea to avoid midday sun, the time when the sun's rays are the strongest.
By taking action to avoid being burned by your sunscreen this month, you're taking action to protect yourself from skin cancer in the future. Simply knowing your number and the best ways to apply your lotion can reduce serious health risks. The next time you sit in the sun, remember to separate the facts from fiction.
Shannon C. Trotter is a dermatologist at The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center specializing in skin cancer.