Ask the Pharmacist: Importance of Sunscreen

By Dominic Kelly, B.Sc.Pharm, Pharmacy Manager, James Bay Pharmasave

Exposure to the sun has several positive health effects such as activating the production of Vitamin D in your skin and an elevating effect on mood.

However, too much of the sun’s rays can be harmful and can lead to sunburn, wrinkles, and skin cancer.

Sunlight emits radiation in the form of ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are three types of UV rays, all of which can increase the risk of skin cancer.

UVA rays make up most of the sun’s natural light and cause immediate tanning, as well as aging and wrinkling of the skin. It can also cause certain skin cancers.

UVB rays are nearly 1,000 times stronger than UVA rays and are responsible for tanning, sunburns, and causing most skin cancers.

The third type of UV rays, UVC, is the strongest of the three types, however it is filtered out by the ozone layer.

The first sign of damage is usually a sunburn which causes severe redness of the skin and is often painful to touch. Sometimes there may be inflammation, blistering and peeling of the skin.

Longer term damage can also include premature skin aging. You will see thickening of the skin, increased wrinkles and age spots. Eye damage can also occur, which can lead to vision problems such as clouding of the lens or cataracts. Sun reflections from the water, sand and snow can cause inflammation in the eye fairly quickly if you are not wearing proper sunglasses or goggles.

Being in the sun too long may weaken your immune system and increase your risk of infections. One example of this is activation of the virus that causes cold sores when exposed to sun.

Sun damage builds up over time with each exposure to the sun. The skin can repair superficial damage like the redness and soreness of sunburn, but the underlying damage remains.

Everyone is at risk for UV damage. Some people are more easily affected than others such as those who take certain over-the-counter and prescription medications that can make you more sensitive to the sun.

In general, the fairer your complexion, the greater the risk for sun damage.

Wearing a sunscreen is one of the easiest things you can do to prevent sun damage. Sunscreens are rated by the strength of their Sun Protection Factor, or SPF. The SPF number refers to the sunscreen’s ability to block UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and skin cancer.

SPF ratings range from 2 to 100. The Canadian Dermatology Association recommends using a SPF 30 or higher broad spectrum (having both UVA and UVB protection) sunscreen. If you are someone who would normally develop a sunburn in 10 minutes if exposed to the sun without protection, wearing a sunscreen with SPF 30, you would burn in 300 minutes, or 5 hours instead. After 5 hours when the sunscreen is no longer effective, your skin will start absorbing UV rays and becoming damaged. This typically leads to a sunburn. You need to reapply sunscreen to be protected again.

A sunscreen with SPF 30 through 50 can protect you from 97% to 98% of UV rays. Sunscreen with higher numbers don’t necessarily provide that much more protection.

It is important that you apply and reapply sunscreen properly throughout the day, and choose something that is right for you. For instance, if you are going to be out in the water, you should choose a water-resistant sunscreen. Note that there is no designation of “water-proof” sunscreen.

Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before you go outside. This is the time it takes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and become protected. This is most important if you plan to be in the water as the sunscreen will not wash off as readily.

Sunscreen should be applied generously to all exposed surfaces including ears, necks and tops of feet. The average adult needs about 2-3 tablespoons to cover their body and 1 teaspoon to cover the face and neck. You will know you’ve applied enough if the skin looks slightly white until the sunscreen is absorbed. Applying less sunscreen will essentially reduce the SPF factor (ie. A SPF 15 product becomes an SPF 5).

Sunscreen should also be reapplied every 2 hours and after swimming, toweling off, or sweating heavily. You need to reapply sunscreen even if it is water-resistant.

Don’t forget about your lips and eyes. Choose a lip balm with an SPF of at least 30 and reapply every hour or after eating and drinking. Sunglasses should have complete UVA / UVB protection.

Applying insect repellant at the same time as sunscreen will make your sunscreen less effective. Apply the sunscreen first then wait at least 15 minutes before applying insect repellant.

Wearing sunscreen does not mean that you are 100% protected from the sun. If you or a member of your family (for example infants less than 6 months old) cannot wear sunscreen or wishes to have extra protection from the sun, they should dress in clothing that protects them from the sun. They should also dress in clothing that protects them from the sun as well as a hat and sunglasses.

Protecting your children is important in preventing skin cancer in the future. It is best to keep babies out of direct sunlight. For children under 6 months, seeking shade and wearing protective clothing are the best methods to protect them from the sun’s harmful rays. However, in situations where this is not available, apply a small amount of SPF 30 sunscreen to your child’s exposed skin, trying a test area on the arm, for instance, to check for sensitivity. Apply sunscreen to children 6 months and older, in addition to keeping them in the shade and wearing protective clothing.

Products that contain titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are less sensitive to the skin, so may be a better option for younger kids. Don’t forget lip balm and sunglasses.

If you get a sunburn, rest and stay out of the sun for at least a week. Cool off the skin by taking a cool bath, as well as drink adequate water. Aloe vera gel and colloidal oatmeal lotions or baths can be used to help soothe the skin and relieve skin irritation.

For pain relief, you can take either acetaminophen or ibuprofen if necessary.

If you have any questions about this or any other health issue, please drop in to see your Pharmacist who will be happy to answer your queries.

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