The importance of sunscreen

Everyone who will be in the sun for longer than 20 minutes a day should use sunscreen. Apply it to all exposed areas of your skin, and do the same for your children.

by Linda Leibl — 

My dermatologist and I have frequent discussions about the importance of sunscreen, and I want to pass along some serious medical data about skin cancer. Protection and prevention are essential because, if you are older than 35, you have already suffered years of sun damage.

According to physicians at the American Academy of Dermatology, 80 percent of sun damage to the skin occurs during the first 18 years of life. Although much damage has already occurred, it is still necessary to control your skin’s exposure to the sun.

A broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen will protect your skin from further damage, as well as protect your body’s free-radical scavengers, superoxide dismutase and other biological agents responsible for DNA repair. These repair agents work continuously to eliminate damaged DNA and correct salvageable DNA strands. While this repair is generally effective, one out of every million damaged sites is improperly repaired, which increases the risk of skin cancer.

Sunlight also deactivates the repair agents and enzymes; consequently, daily application of sunscreen not only protects against further damage, but also protects the very enzymes needed to mend the damage suffered in youth.

Skin damage statistics

  • One percent of wrinkles are a result of aging; 99 percent are caused by the sun.
  • More than 80 percent of skin cancers occur on the face, head and neck.
  • Malignant melanoma is the most frequent type of cancer diagnosed in American women between the ages of 25 and 29.
  • Adult melanoma has been linked to severe, blistering sunburns suffered in childhood.
  • The most common forms of skin cancer — basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma — have been linked to cumulative effects of sun exposure over a long period of time.

Ways to protect yourself from the sun

  • Stay in the shade whenever possible.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses when outdoors.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours when outdoors, even on cloudy days.
  • Wear protective, tightly woven clothing, preferably long-sleeved shirts and pants.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15.
  • Avoid reflective surfaces, which can reflect up to 85 percent of the sun’s damaging rays.
  • Pay attention to your shadow. If it’s shorter than you, the sun is likely to burn your skin.
  • Protect children. Minimize their sun exposure and apply sunscreen regularly.
  • Avoid tanning beds.

When to wear a sunscreen

Everyone who will be in the sun for longer than 20 minutes a day should use sunscreen. Apply it to all exposed areas of your skin, and do the same for your children.

Sunscreen should be applied after your moisturizer, but before your makeup or foundation base. Wait five minutes between the application of each product.

Reapply your sunscreen every 30 minutes if you are in or around water, as the sun’s reflective power is increased 17 percent on sand and 80 percent near water and snow. Even on seemingly harmless cloudy days, 80 percent of the sun’s ultraviolet rays manage to pass through the clouds.

What is the SPF?

Sunscreens are classified by the strength of their sun protection factor (SPF), with SPF levels ranging from 2 to 60. These numbers refer to the product’s ability to screen or block out the sun’s burning rays.

The SPF rating is calculated by comparing the amount of time in which a sunburn will occur on protected skin to the amount of time in which a sunburn will occur on unprotected skin. For example, it will take someone using a sunscreen labeled SPF-8 approximately eight times longer to burn than it would without protection (this is equivalent to 80 minutes for the average person).

Things to consider when selecting an SPF include your sun sensitivity, skin color and the climate in which you spend time outdoors. If your foundation contains a sun protection compound, do not add your foundation’s SPF and your sunscreen SPF numbers together. Just consider the product with the higher number as your maximum level of sun protection.

A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 should be used during the winter, but you will want to use a higher SPF sunscreen during the spring, summer and fall in Arizona.

How do I choose a good sunscreen?

There are many types of sunscreens available, so selecting the right one can be tricky.

Years ago, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) was the basic ingredient in sunscreens; however, it stained clothing. Today’s PABA has been refined and the newer ingredient called PABA esters includes glycerol and rarely stains clothing. If you are sensitive to PABA and its esters, you may want to consider products that contain benzophenones (oxybenzone), cinnamates (octylmethyl cinnamate and cinoxate) and salicycates instead.


Linda L. Leibl, B.S., has been a clinical aesthetician since 1986 and founded Advanced Skin Technology in 1993 in Scottsdale, Ariz. She recently created the four-component Anti-Aging Facial. 480-443-3445, or

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 2, April/May 2006.

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