FEATURE | Posted July 2, 2018

Be Safe In the Sun

Slather on the sunscreen today to reduce cancer risk tomorrow

California teens enjoying the beach © iStockphoto
Most young people don’t think much about the dangerous effects of the sun and artificial ultraviolet (UV) light, but sun safety early in life is crucial to preventing skin cancer in adulthood.

In California, where fun in the sun is a way of life, teens love to hang out at the beach or by the pool to beat the summer sizzle. And when California “cool” is often defined by a glowing tan, the tanning bed is an alluring destination, too. Most young people don’t think much about the dangerous effects of the sun and artificial ultraviolet (UV) light, but sun safety early in life is crucial to preventing skin cancer in adulthood.

 Some studies have shown that high school students seem to be more motivated to use sunscreen when educated about the aging effects of UV light compared to the increased skin cancer risk of UV light. 

“Safe” tanning? No such thing

Dr. Smita Awasthi © UC Regents“Whichever sunscreen you choose, it must be reapplied every two hours, after getting in the water, toweling dry, or sweating.”
— Smita Awasthi

Excessive exposure to natural sunlight or artificial UV light (tanning beds or UV lamps) early in life significantly increases the risk for skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S. Five or more blistering sunburns before age 20 may increase the risk of melanoma by 80 percent, according to the American Association for Cancer Research. One in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime. Melanoma, the most aggressive type of skin cancer, is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers among adolescents and young adults. Yet the message does not seem to get through, as nearly two-thirds of high school students report having been sunburned at least once.

Studies supported by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consistently shown that indoor tanning — using a tanning bed, booth or sunlamp to achieve a tan — increases the chances of getting skin cancer just as much as natural sun exposure does because it delivers high levels of UV radiation in a short time. It also increases the risk of eye cancer (ocular melanoma).

Key ways to reduce your risk:

  • Apply a zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sunscreen year-round with an SPF of at least 30
  • Apply sunscreen every two hours when in the sun
  • Reapply sunscreen after exposure to water, toweling or sweat
  • Avoid the sun, stay in the shade or wear sun-protective clothing during peak hours of UV radiation from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
  • Wear 100 percent UV-blocking sunglasses

Not all sunscreens are created equal

Establishing sun safety habits early in life is crucial to minimizing the risk of skin cancer in the future. Proper use of sunscreen is one of the most important ways to reduce the risk of sun damage and skin cancer. The SPF – or sun protection factor – measures the sunscreen’s ability to prevent damage to the skin from UV rays.

“An SPF of 15 filters about 93 percent of UV radiation, while an SPF of 30 filters about 97 percent," said Smita Awasthi, pediatric dermatologist at UC Davis Children's Hospital. Most dermatologists agree that a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 is best. “Since SPF is only a marker of protection against UVB rays, it is also important to look for a sunscreen that is labeled 'broad spectrum' which indicates protection against UVA rays, as well.”

Photo of teen wearing hat and sunglasses at the beach. © iStockphoto
Be sure to protect yourself while in the sun with sunscreen, protective clothing and 100 percent UV-blocking sunglasses.

Proper application of sunscreen is important, too.

While the brand of sunscreen doesn’t matter much, it’s crucial to look at the ingredients. Two main types of ingredients, physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) and chemical blockers (avobenzone, oxybenzone, and others) exist in sunscreen. Physical blockers tend to have broader coverage and are effective immediately after being applied. Chemical blockers take time to become effective and need to be applied 20 minutes before sun exposure. 

“Physical blocker sunscreens, such as those with zinc oxide, tend to be preferred due to their broader coverage. Whichever sunscreen you choose, it must be reapplied every two hours, after getting in the water, toweling dry or sweating,” she added.

The sun’s rays are most harmful from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., and usually even until 4 p.m. in the spring and summer. During this period, it’s important to wear sun-protective clothing. UV rays can go through white cotton T-shirts and cause skin damage, especially when the T-shirt is wet. Wearing tightly woven or dark-colored clothing helps block harmful UV rays.

Watch the 60-second ABC10 video on sun safety tips with Smita Awasthi.