The best way to defend your skin from damage and long term skin issues is to protect your skin early and often from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. The most common sun protection method is using a quality sunscreen.
What should I look for in a sunscreen?
- At least SPF 30. Pro tip: Going above 30 SPF doesn’t offer much greater protection.
- Broad spectrum. Pro tip: this means the sunscreen covers both UVA and UVB rays.
- Water resistant. Pro tip: This is especially important for water exposure or sweating.
How much sunscreen should be applied?
One fluid ounce (enough to fill a shot glass) is the amount generally considered enough to cover exposed body areas, although this varies based on a person’s body size. Apply and rub in to all exposed body areas.
How often to reapply?
Apply 20 minutes before sun exposure and reapplied at least every two hours under dry conditions. Apply more often if in water or sweating. Pro tip: Every two hours is tough to manage, so also seek shade, wear a hat, and wear protective clothing when possible.
Pro tip: if you are using bug spray, the sunscreen should be applied first, followed by the bug spray; avoid sunscreen/bug spray combination products because they have different reapplication schedules.
What are the differences between the different sunscreen types – chemical vs. barrier?
Chemical sunscreens (such as oxybenzone) are very popular and work by absorbing and filtering harmful UV radiation from penetrating the skin. This sunscreen type is often colorless and remains as a thin layer on the skin.
Barrier, or physical, sunblocks (such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) physically block harmful UV rays from reaching the skin. Barrier sunblock can provide high protection from the sun, but a quantitative SPF is difficult to specify. Some folks find this sunscreen unfavorable because it is visible on the skin (pro tip: If it’s visible, it can function properly). There are colorful options that can be fun, or you can go for the nose-specific “Dad style” of barrier sunblock application modeled by The ‘Hoff.
What about parts of my body I can’t apply sunscreen to?
Protect your eyes! Look for sunglasses that promote UV400 protection; these filter out 99.9% of UVA and UVB rays. Lips need protection from the sun too! Use a lip balm that has SPF protection.
What about clothing with UV protection?
UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) is similar to SPF in that it is a quantitative system used to describe how much UV protection clothing provides. For reference, most clothing typically has a UPF of ~6, while most sun protective fabrics have a UPF of 30 and others can exceed a UPF of 50! These are great options if you are going to be outside on a boat all day or doing other activities where applying/reapplying sunscreen may be difficult.
What else am I forgetting about sunscreen?
- Check expiration dates! Yes, sunscreen can expire, and when it does, you will be frustrated and burnt. Expiration date locations on products vary, so be sure to look over bottles before applying! See below for examples of expiration date locations:
- Apply on cloudy and cold days This is especially important to note for your face when skiing; the white snow can reflect the sun’s rays back up to your face to intensify the damage.
- Don’t forget the tops of your feet; take off those flip flops when applying sunscreen.
- Scalps can and do burn. To my fellow short-haired folks: rub in sunscreen to the scalp. If you part your hair, apply sunscreen to the exposed line. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat is a good option or addition for head/scalp sun protection.
- There are also several makeup brands/products that contain SPF. Give these options a try to protect yourself from your daily excursions into the sun’s harmful rays.
How to treat/manage sunburn if it happens?
- Take cool baths/showers.
- Apply moisturizer that contains aloe vera or soy to soothe burned areas. You may also apply a thin layer of OTC hydrocortisone to particularly uncomfortable areas to help with redness, itchiness, and inflammation. (Note: hydrocortison is only for small sections of the body, only for use less than 4 times per day and at most, only to be used for 13 consecutive days.
- Drink extra water.
- If appropriate, you can also take over-the-counter NSAIDs (ibuprofen or naproxen) to help with pain and reduce inflammation. Be sure to take NSAIDs with food, plenty of fluids, and as directed by the package or your healthcare provider. If you are taking any other medications, ask your pharmacist or healthcare provider to ensure NSAIDs are safe for you to use.
- Avoid using products that end in “-caine” (such as benzocaine).
- If your sunburn forms into blisters, keep the blisters intact. The blisters are there to aid skin healing and protect against infections.
- If the sunburn is over a large surface area of your body, or if you are worried an infection has set in, see your healthcare provider to see if prescription medications are warranted.
Can some medications that can enhance sunburn possibility?
Yes! Several medications can enhance sunlight sensitivity of your skin. Check medication labels and/or ask your pharmacist or healthcare provider if medications you take can cause increased risk of sunburn. Examples of common medications that can have this side effect include: Tetracyclines (e.g., doxycycline, minocycline); Thiazides (e.g., HCTZ); Sulfonamides (e.g., sulfamethoxazole/trimethoprim); Phenothiazines (e.g., promethazine); Quinolones (e.g., ciprofloxacin, levofloxacin). If you are taking any of these medications, be sure to take special care of your skin by wearing sun-protective clothing and reapplying sunscreen with any sun exposure for the entire duration you take the medication and even a few days after your last dose.
Be sure to look for SPF 30+ products available at the Health Heels Shoppe in the basement of UNC Campus Health Services and at the Student Stores Pharmacy for your sun protection needs.
John Taylor Schimmelfing is a Pharmacist at Campus Health Services. John graduated from Elon before obtaining his PharmD from the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy. He also happens to be a National, World and Junior Olympic jump rope champion, which clearly qualifies him as an expert on all things jump rope related such as whether jump rope is two words or one (it’s two!).
Sources: American Academy of Dermatology; American Melanoma Foundation
Post originated in 2016. It has been edited and updated for clarity.