Sunscreen Basics

Boaters beware: water reflects the sun’s rays, amplifying the risks of exposure.Current estimates are that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime; more than one million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year.Older boaters don’t bear all the risk, as malignant melanoma- one of three types of cancer directly related to excessive sun exposure- is the number one cancer in those aged 25-29, and second most prevalent for those 15-29 years old.The chilling reality is that one person dies from melanoma every hour.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommendations, regardless of skin type or color, are for a broad spectrum sunscreen with a minimum Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15 that protects against UVA rays & UVB rays.UVA rays pass through window glass, causing premature skin aging, wrinkling, and age spots; UVB rays do not penetrate glass and are the cause of sunburn. Don’t let sunshine be your guide: up to 80% of the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can pass through clouds and damage skin.

Sunscreens should be applied to dry skin 15-30 minutes before going outdoors.Most people apply only 25-50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen: one ounce, enough to fill a shot glass, is considered the minimum amount needed to properly cover the exposed areas of the body (double that amount if you’re wearing a bathing suit).Sunscreen should be re-applied at least every two hours, sooner after swimming or perspiring heavily.Even so-called “water-resistant” sunscreens may lose their effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water.

Make-up, lotions, and hand creams may have added sunscreens; such protection is often adequate for routine daily activities, but on the high seas, be sure to also apply sunscreen. Cream sunscreens are best for individuals with dry skin, while gels and sprays are preferable in hairy areas.In my experience, spray sunscreens improve compliance, as people are more likely to re-apply these, especially on very hot days.The ideal sunscreens are water-resistant and have a minimum SPF of 30.

Though there are lots of high SPF products, you are likely to find a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 more aesthetically pleasing than one with an SPF of 70.Don’t be mislead by high-SPF products:an SPF 45 will not provide three times the protection of an SPF 15; an SPF of 30 screens 97% of UVB rays, and a SPF of 15 screens 93% of UVB rays.Just remember to re-apply every couple of hours to maintain protection.

When it comes to finding an effective sunscreen, you don’t need to buy the most expensive brand name products.I find store brands are often as effective, but less aesthetically pleasing, so you may wish to apply a store brand on your body and a brand name on your face. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recently introduced the AAD SEAL OF RECOGNITION®, which is used to help consumers choose products that will provide the sun protection recommended by dermatologists; look for this seal of recognition on product labels.

For those with very sensitive skin, sunscreens containing titanium and/or zinc oxide are best.If you develop a reaction, “cinnamates” may be the ingredient to avoid.Fragrances in sunscreen may also irritate your skin, and avoid combination products like sunscreens with insect repellent.

A final caution:no matter how conscientious you are about applying sunscreen, I recommend that everyone undergo a yearly full body skin examination by a board certified dermatologist, who will also teach you how to do a self examination.

A hot topic lately is the controversy over some chemical sunscreens containing benzenes, which MAY be associated with cancer risks.

Some sunscreens contain chemical blockers, and others contain physical blockers. The physical sunblocks contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. In years past, these ingredients were undesirable, as their opaque nature made them aesthetically unpleasant for users. In recent years, these products have been refined using nano (like nano particles from your physics class) technology to make them more aesthetically acceptable.

There are many chemicals in the other category, from the original PABA to some of the more popular ones such as avobenzones and cinnamates. Most sunscreens contain these chemical blockers alone or in combination with physical blockers.

With the recent findings that some of the chemical blockers may increase rather than decrease your risk of skin cancer, the push is towards finding effective sunscreens that only contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Locating a sunscreen that only contains these two ingredients requires a little extra time reading labels at your local drug store, or asking your pharmacist for guidance. You can also call your local friendly dermatologist’s office to see if they have any suggestions or sell a good product.

Remember, all of this has not been proven. There have been many controversies in medicine over the years that have not panned out, and many recent articles have been sponsored by companies who have something to gain by changing consumers’ habits. The bottom line is that for me, many of my colleagues, and the American Academy of Dermatology, the risk/benefit ratio of not wearing a sunscreen even with purely chemical blockers is worth it over experiencing sunburn and skin damage.

The bottom line: don’t throw away that bottle of sunscreen–use it! My personal point of view is that until more valid scientific evidence can demonstrate a true association between the use of chemical blockers and skin cancer, the risk of getting skin cancer is much, much, much higher for those people avoiding the use of sunscreen than for those using them.

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