It’s really very sunny out these days in the Pacific Northwest. And although summer can be shorter up here we certainly compensate with idyllic, cloudless days. However, many of us can be out of practice protecting our skin. I’ve seen lots of tan lines and sunburns in clinic this summer. In fact, those of us living in Northern climates may carry an additional risk when it comes to the sun. One rarely known risk factor for skin cancer is living in a cool climate but vacationing near the equator. The reason? If your skin is unaccustomed to living in the sun, you tend to burn more when entering those areas of more intense sunshine.
Further, many people get confused about cool weather and sunshine. Sun intensity and Ultraviolet (UV) radiation (UVA and UVB rays) have nothing to do with temperature. No difference in intensity if it’s 60 or 80 degrees out when it comes to the sun’s effect. Reality is people burn more when it’s 80 simply because they have less clothing on and more skin exposed. As a reminder, UVB radiation varies throughout the year (it’s most intense during summer) and UVA radiation is constant throughout all the seasons.
Although the best ways to protect your family’s skin from the sun remain seeking shade (umbrellas, trees, etc), planning long-lasting activities in the sun outside of the peak sun times (not between 10am and 4pm) and dressing right for the the occasion by wearing sun protective clothing (hats and/or UV shirts often labeled “UPF” for ultraviolet protective factor). Research finds that those who rely solely on sunscreen tend to burn more, so sunscreen needs to be thought of as just one tool. 5 tips:
5 Tips For Smart Sunscreen Use
- Sun-protective clothing: always wear hats and long-sleeved swim shirts when out during peak sun hours (10am to 4pm). We’ve been doing this since day one with our boys and we’ve yet to encounter any battles about this. You’ll double protection on your face and those areas prone to burns (shoulders, back) without ANY fights or fuss about applying and reapplying lotion to that part of the body! These protective shirts will likely save you money (less sunscreen to buy), save you on sunburns (research finds that those who rely solely on sunscreen, without protective clothes, tend to burn more), and time — less fuss when reapplying sunscreen mid-way through the beach trip! Triple the fun.
- UVA & UVB protection: UVA rays cause skin Aging and UVB rays cause skin Burning. You’ll need broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) over 30. The reason? You’ll need coverage for both UVA and UVB rays (broad-spectrum). All sunscreens now have FDA-mandated labels to avoid confusion.
- Sun Protective Factor: Sun protective factor (SPF) over 30 is always recommended. Of note, SPF rating only refers to the protection you get from UVB rays that cause the skin to burn. With SPF 30, you get protection from 97% of UVB rays therefore any SPF higher just takes you from 97% to 98%, etc.
- Is That Spray Okay? No question the “hottest” sunscreen issue media has picked up on this season surrounds safety of spray sunscreen. FDA data has suggested some risk with inhalants and a lack of clarity around safety, ongoing investigations continue. In July, Consumer Reports (CR) picked up the data and published a report advising not to use these sunscreen sprays on children until more is known. My concern with the CR recommendation is that data also finds that people tend to use sunscreen more if they use the type they prefer (spray vs lotion vs sticks, etc). Safety concerns focus around potential risks from the inhalants of these sprays–the particles can clearly be an irritant to the lungs! Therefore, if you choose to use that spray, do so smartly, only in proper situations and with children at low-risk. A) Never spray directly on your child’s face –I’d recommend lotion for face, ears, and neck. B) Always spray outside in a well-ventilated area. C) When applying, even to limbs, have children hold their breath, close their mouth and eyes while spraying. D) Avoid sprays if your child has underlying lung problems like asthma, allergies, or respiratory issues. E) Never spray near an open flame (campfire, cigarette) as these sprays often contain alcohol and are flammable!
- Use Enough Stuff And Re-Apply: Can’t say this enough. Apply sunscreens 15-20 minutes prior to activity in the sun so the stuff adheres to your skin. Even though some sunscreen manufacturers produce sunscreen in 3 oz bottles (what are they thinking?) you’ll need 2 Tablespoons of sunscreen (an ounce) to cover an entire body. In addition, you can’t apply in the morning and expect that sunscreen to last all day. Even if you send your day-camper off and it seems inconvenient, I suggest you put the sunscreen in the lunch sac for a mid-day reapply. Apply sunscreen every 80-120 minutes when active in the sun. Good news here is that if you follow tip #1 and use sun-protective clothing you’ll need less of the sunscreen and this is far less a hassle.
This post was written in partnership with OTC Safety.org. In exchange for our ongoing partnership helping families understand how to use OTC (over-the-counter) meds safely they have made a contribution to Digital Health at Seattle Children’s for our work in innovation. I adore the OTC Safety tagline, “Treat yourself and your family with care all year long.” Follow @OTCSafety #OTCSafety for more info on health and wellness.
Sarah Callenders says
Three cheers for this post! I just took the kids to their annual skin check (melanoma and weird moles run in our family) and the derm helped my son find a sunscreen that he will actually wear. yay!
And I got this cool blush-brush sunscreen that’s like a powder foundation (to keep in my purse and brush on when necessary). There are some great new products out there, thank goodness!
Thanks for your commitment to this topic!
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thanks, Sarah! I have a similar blush-brush powder but I don’t find I use it very often. However, I think if it’s handy and you like the texture or form of the sunscreen all the better!
Why is it we still tan even when wearing sunscreen? I use 30 SPF on myself and my kids, but we still tan. Is this okay? We never burn.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Tanning still happens, even with sunscreen, because you are getting some sun exposure and the melanin comes out in your skin to protect it from the sun. Also may be that the intervals you put on sunscreen are a little long (when in water or mid-day sun). I’ve had this happen, too, and it can feel frustrating even when a part of great sun protection.
Wearing more UV protective clothing helps and you won’t tan in those areas if you have good 50 SPF UV protection…not possible for your whole body (!!!) but rest easy knowing that you’ve taken great steps even if some tan appears in areas where you use sunscreen.