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Sunscreen & sunblock smarts

Whether you’re in store for a beautiful weekend or the forecast shows some clouds rolling in, you should protect your skin from the sun’s UV rays. Sunscreen filters out the sun’s dangerous, invisible ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can cause skin cancer. Get a grip on SPF and how to protect your skin with the right products.

Woman Applying Sunscreen

Sunscreen & sunblock 411

The International Dermal Institute (IDI) advises us to use sunscreen not only on warm, clear days, but also on sunny winter days, when it’s cloudy — even while driving. “We need to protect our skin any time it’s exposed to daylight, not just when we think our chances of exposure are higher,” says Dr Diana Howard, vice-president of research and development for the IDI.

Research shows that daily low-grade exposure to sunlight can be just as damaging as short, intense exposure with sun protection. Howard adds, “The proper application of sunscreen on a daily basis is as mandatory to skin health as proper cleansing.”

Who should wear sunscreen?

Put simply: Everyone. However there are certain types that are even more in need of protection. The sun’s UV rays can damage anyone’s skin in as little as 15 minutes and skin of all colors can be harmed by those ultraviolet rays. Apart from those who spend a lot of time outdoors — for work or play — you’re more likely to get skin cancer from exposure to the sun if you have one or more of the following:  

  • Lighter natural skin color.
  • Skin that easily sunburns, freckles or gets red (or becomes painful from the sun).
  • Blonde or red hair.
  • Blue or green eyes.
  • A family member who has had skin cancer.  

Kids are among the most vulnerable, as illustrated by a 2006 review article published in Pediatric Dermatology that says most people receive 50 percent of their total lifetime sun exposure before the age of 18. So, it is more important than ever to educate kids and families about skin cancer and smart sun protection.

When to use sunscreen

You need protection from the sun even on slightly cloudy or cool days. For best results, you should apply sunscreen approximately 30 minutes before being in the sun so that it will be absorbed by the skin and less likely to wash off when you perspire. Before application, shake the bottle well before use to mix particles that might be clumped up in the container. For ease of use, consider using the spray-on or stick types of sunscreen. “I’m going to get some of that spray for [my son],” says Sheila, one of the community members. “He doesn’t sit still for a second while I’m trying to get him dressed, so this way, I can just point and shoot — and it seems like it will be so easy to re-apply it while we’re outside.”

Sunblock application basics

Use sun protection on all parts of your skin exposed to the sun, including the ears, back, shoulders and the backs of your knees and legs. If blemishes or sensitive skin is an issue, special non-oil-based sunscreens are available for use on your face. Be sure to apply enough; as a rule of thumb, use an ounce (approximately a handful) to cover your entire body every couple of hours. Apply it thickly and thoroughly, and get help for hard-to-reach places like your back. (Two trouble spots that don’t work so well with suncreen: Your scalp — especially if you have a part — and your eyelids. A hat and sunglasses will fit the bill there.)

Keep in mind that sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours, and after you swim or do anything that makes you sweat.

Which sunscreen product is best?

Sunscreens come in many forms, including lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UV-A and UV-B rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15.

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Don’t judge protection by the price tag

Read product labels, and be aware that, while a pricey brand might feel or smell better, it is not necessarily more effective than a cheaper product. Realize that not all sunscreens have the same ingredients. For example, buy one that does not contain para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) if you are sensitive to that ingredient. And, of course, if your skin (or your child’s skin) reacts badly to one product, try another brand or call a doctor for advice.

“I’m allergic to something in most sunscreens — I break out and itch all over,” says message board member Annmarie. “The only kind I can use is Neutrogena. That stuff is expensive but worth it.”

Consider the occasion

Speciality formulations are available: Look for a waterproof brand if you will be sweating or swimming, and use a water-based sunscreen if you have oily skin or are prone to acne. (Follow the directions on the package or consult your child’s pediatrician when using a sunscreen product on babies younger than 6 months old.) Finally, check that expiration date before slathering on the sunscreen — some ingredients degrade over time.

Are you a lotion-phobe?

If you’re like many and cringe at the thought of applying sunscreen lotions to your face and body, here’s a something you’ll love for daily use.  The multi-vitamin SPF 10 body bar from Bethesda Sunscreen Soap offers a great-smelling bar soap that has sunscreen built in, which means you can simply shower and get get that sun protection, while also reaping the benefits of vitamins A, C and E, along with selemuim which protest your skin cells from damage caused by free radicals, and zinc, which reduces inflamation and promotes healing.

While it’s a great start, remember that the bar is only SPF 10.  If you’re going to spend time in the sun, you’ll need more protection than that, but this is a great start for daily sun protection without even having to think about applying after you shower! Find it at

Beyond sunscreen

Combine these sun-protective options to help protect your skin from damage in both the short and long terms:

  • Seek some shade if outdoor activities are unavoidable during midday, when the UV rays are the strongest and do the most damage.
  • When it’s cloudy, remember that the sun’s rays can still penetrate the clouds and harm your skin.
  • Choose more than one way to cover up when you’re in the sun. Wear a hat, throw on a T-shirt, grab your sunglasses and seek out some shade.

And just think: By following these simple tips, you may never have to deal with the pain of sunburn again!

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