Summer in South Texas: Outdoor barbecues, shorts, swimming, and of course, the sun. As much fun as it is to be outdoors in the sun, the sun does damage your skin and can make you look older than you really are. Not to mention the risk of skin cancer.
Of course, we all know about avoiding sun exposure and using sunscreens. Yet there are many myths about using sunscreens and I would like to discuss some of these myths. I hope that this helps you make better choices in your use of sunscreen. Please do not hesitate to write back with any questions you may have about sunscreens. In a subsequent newsletter, we will try to answer those questions.
Myths of Sunscreen
Before we tackle a few myths about sunscreens, let’s review a little about the sun, sunscreens, and why we use them.
Let’s start with the sun. Along with life giving light and heat, the sun also puts out ultraviolet (UV) light, which is one of the major components of sunlight. There are beneficial effects of UV but it also physically damages skin components and DNA. This damage causes skin structures to skin lose elasticity. The collagen begins to thin out and wrinkles develop. Age spots begin to develop on the skin. All of this helps make your skin look older. The most important cause of aging skin is sun exposure to the sun’s UV light. Protecting your skin from the sun helps you look younger as you age.
In addition, UV light can damage DNA and cause precancerous changes which can lead to skin cancers. Another benefit of protecting from UV is to help prevent skin cancer, especially the dangerous melanoma type.
Skin that is exposed to intense UV light will be excessively damaged. It turns red and is painful. This is a sunburn. But even when the skin is not damaged enough to cause a sunburn, there is still damage. In response to that damage, the skin forms melanin (which helps protect from further damage). We see the increased melanin in the skin as tanning. Though many consider tanning to be a sign of healthy skin, it is actually a sign of damaged skin.
UV light arrives on earth as two types. UVB is the stronger, more direct type and causes sunburns and heavy tanning. It is found during the middle of the day in the spring, summer, and early fall. In San Antonio, we are far enough South that there are high levels of UVB for over half the year. UVA, the other type, is less powerful and will not burn but it penetrates deeper into the skin. It is the primary cause of aging skin. It is found year round and all day. Though it is not as powerful as UVB, there is significantly more of it and its effect is cumulative.
There are two kinds of sunscreens; physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens are made of either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide which sit on top of the skin and block the UV light. Chemical sunscreens are chemicals which absorb the UV light and render it harmless. Over time, these chemicals break them down as they absorb the UV light which is why most sunscreens should be put on every few hours. Some are more resistant than others.
Physical sunscreens, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, block a wide spectrum of UV light. Chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate, and many others) tend to be more specific in what they block. Most do not block UVA light.
Now on to some of the myths we hear all the time.
1 Tans are healthy; as long as I don’t burn I am OK:
Tans are a sign of damaged skin. Though you may not have burned when you acquire the tan, you have damaged your skin and you have increased your risk of cancer and aging. There is no safe UV light. Tanning booths, with their “safe” UV light, actually expose you to UV light that will cause aging effects over time.
2 I tanned so much when I was young; it is too late now:
It is difficult to undo the damage of the past. But you can prevent future damage through proper sun protection. The effects of sun damage are cumulative. What has been done has been done but starting now to prevent more damage will have a beneficial effect. If you start protecting your skin today, in ten years you will look much better than if you did not stop.
3 I have sunscreen in my makeup:
Sunscreens in makeup are generally lower quality chemical sunscreens that provide just a little sun protection. They are not really there to protect your skin. They are there to allow the manufacturer to claim that they have an SPF sunscreen. A good sunscreen is a poor makeup. You are much better off putting on a good sunscreen and then applying makeup over it.
4 I’m indoors all the time:
UVA light easily goes through glass. Unless there are no windows, you are receiving UV light. Yes, it is true that you will get less than if you were outside but if you are not wearing sunscreen and near a window, your skin is being damaged. In addition, just going outside and getting in a car exposes you to UV light, as does driving or riding in a car. In San Antonio, unless you live in a windowless building and never go outside, you are getting a significant amount of UV light over time. Better to use sunscreens and truly protect yourself.
5 I use SPF 15, that is plenty:
First, SPF is strictly a measure of protection from UVB. It does not measure UVA protection. Most SPF 15 products have no protection from UVA, which ages your skin. In addition, sunscreens will break down over time, so that SPF 15 product you put on your skin rapidly becomes an SPF 10 and then an SPF 8 until it is gone. Finally, an SPF 15 only blocks out 93% of the UV light. An SPF 45 product blocks out 97%. If your goal over time is to protect your skin from as much UV light as possible, it is much better to use an SPF 45 product or higher, than an SPF 15 product.
These are a few of the common myths we hear about sunscreens. Hopefully understanding why they are myths will help you make better choices in how you protect your skin. We will cover some other myths and thoughts about sunscreen in a future article, but for now, the best thing you can do is the following.
- Wear a hat (preferably a wide brim hat) when ever outdoors. Also, wear sunglasses, this protects your eyes from UV light.
- Chose sunscreens with physical blocks that cover UVA, preferably micronized zinc oxide.
- Chose sunscreens that have the highest SPF (in addition to broad UVA protection) that feel comfortable on your skin.