Sunscreen 101

School is out and it’s time to enjoy the sunshine. After all, you deserve it! But don’t forget, your skin deserves some protection. The skin is a living organ system that interacts with the external environment while protecting our internal organs. Thus, it is important to know about proper sun protection for your skin.

What is SPF?

SPF stands for sun protection factor, meaning there is an extra layer of protection that an individual receives from the application of sunscreen. According to the Food and Drug Administration, the recommendation is to use a sunscreen with at least SPF 15 and labeled as “broad-spectrum SPF.” The American Cancer Society recommends sunscreens with SPF 30 when engaging in outdoor activities.

What exactly do these numbers mean?

A broad-spectrum sunscreen that has SPF 15 means that particular bottle of sunscreen will offer sun protection against both UVA and UVB rays 15x longer than without sunscreen at all.

UVA vs UVB Rays

UVA and UVB rays are two types of radiation from sunlight that, in excess, can be harmful to the skin. UVA rays penetrate the skin deeper than UVB rays and are the ray responsible for skin aging, wrinkling, and tanning. UVB rays damage the outermost layers of the skin and are primarily responsible for sunburns and reddening of the skin.

Which SPF Sunscreen is Right for Me?

When considering which level of SPF to use, it is important to know that an SPF of 30 does not necessarily offer twice the protection of an SPF of 15; while higher SPF sunscreens offer more protection, it is not a linear scale. The higher the SPF the greater percentage of harmful rays are prevented from reddening the skin.

• SPF 15 protects against 93% of UVB rays
• SPF 30 protects against 97% of UVB rays
• SPF 50 protects against 98% of UVB rays

Applying Sunscreen

Picking the right sunscreen is just as important as applying the sunscreen correctly. If you are going to be using insect repellent and sunscreen, be sure to apply the sunscreen first and wait at least 30 minutes before applying the insect repellent. Apply the sunscreen liberally and be sure to follow the directions listed. To get a sense of how much sunscreen you should apply, the recommended amount is at least two tablespoons.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, no sunscreen is waterproof. Some sunscreens may have water or sweat resistance. These water/sweat resistant sunscreens should detail a specific amount of time the labeled SPF level of protection lasts for an individual when swimming or sweating. Finally, it is important that you reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, regardless of the level of SPF.

Protective Clothing

Protective clothing is another way to ensure your skin is optimally protected against UV radiation. Long sleeve shirts, long pants, and wide-brimmed hats protect against just that! If the clothes are tightly woven or dark, it’s even more protection. Sunglasses with lenses that protect 100% against UVA and UVB radiation are also strongly recommended. If you have a history of skin cancer or increased risk of getting sunburns, protective clothing is very important and should be worn whenever exposed to sunlight. These clothes help to keep rays from harming skin.

How to Treat Sunburn

Sunburn is defined as a sign of skin damage from spending too much time outdoors without wearing a protective sunscreen, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. If you find yourself with a sunburn, taking an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication (such as ibuprofen or aspirin) and applying cold compresses or ice packs aids the pain relief. Additionally, taking cool baths or showers frequently may help. After the bath, gently pat yourself dry but leave some water on the skin and apply a moisturizer. The use of moisturizing creams and lotions (including aloe) will also help prevent drying and cracking. If a blister does form, leave it intact for a faster healing process. If you have a sunburn, stay out of the sun for a few days in a cool, shaded, or indoor space and drink plenty of water.

Sun poisoning is when an itchy, red rash has appeared on the skin after being exposed to sunlight, also known as a sun allergy. It may take only minutes for signs of sun poisoning to appear after exposure to the sun. These signs are redness, itchiness/pain, elevated red patches, blisters, scaling, or even bleeding.

Summer is a great time to relax and have some fun in the sun. Keeping your skin properly protected allows for you to enjoy this time frequently and safely. If you are in the sun often, it is beneficial to do self-screenings at least once a month to make sure everything is all right.

Know Where to Go When it’s Not Life Threatening

Go to your primary care physician, family doctor, or pediatrician if you have concerns about your sunburn, or for questions regarding over-the-counter remedies, contact your primary care physician.

If you can’t get an appointment at a time that works for you, or your doctor’s schedule is all booked up, you have options.

MinuteClinics are good alternatives if you need to see a health care provider sooner than you can see your PCP, or if you need care outside of your PCP’s normal office hours. MinuteClinics can treat many minor illnesses and injuries and prescribe medications.

When to Go to Urgent Care or the Emergency Room

In some cases, sunburns can be bad enough to require advanced care. Go to urgent care or the ER if your symptoms include:

• Severe pain
• Severe blistering
• Severe headache
• Confusion
• Nausea or vomiting
• Faintness or dizziness

Those with a severe burn who also suffer from a serious health condition – such as cancer, HIV/AIDS, diabetes – should seek emergency care.

If you’re not sure if which type of care you need, call your family doctor or HealthConnectionSM at 404-778-7777 and speak to an Emory nurse for assistance.

To learn more about getting the right care at the right time and in the right place, or to find locations, visit emoryhealthcare.org/wheretogo.

About Dr. Colovos

Nick Colovos, MD, received his degree from the University of Miami School of Medicine in 1993 and completed his residency in emergency medicine at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Toledo, Ohio, in 1996. His work experiences in the academic, public and private sectors of medical care have allowed him to develop a unique perspective on the business of healthcare and its delivery to patients. He currently serves as medical director for the Emory Healthcare Urgent Care and MinuteClinic Strategy, and assistant clinical professor of Emergency Medicine, Emory University School of Medicine, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Leave a Reply

By submitting comments or questions on advancingyourhealth.org, you are agreeing to the terms of our posting policy.