Hitting the Beach? Soak Up These Top Sun Safety Tips
Medically reviewed by Leigh Ann Anderson, PharmD Last updated on May 7, 2020.
Do I Really Need To Use A Sunscreen?
Yes, absolutely! Over 5 million skin cancers, like basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma, are treated each year. Many of these skin cancers could have been prevented with protection from the sun’s rays.
Take your advice from the experts. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends the use of a sunscreen that offers the following:
- "Broad-spectrum" protection (protects against "both UVA and UVB" rays) - look for sunscreens that have these words on their labels
- Sun Protection Factor (SPF) 30 or greater
- Water resistance (look for a product with at least 40 to 80 minutes of water resistance)
Sunburn Risk Factors
Everyone should avoid getting a sunburn and everyone needs a sunscreen.
Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is associated with early skin aging, an increased risk for skin cancer, and eye damage.
People who are at most risk for a sunburn are:
- those who are fair-skinned
- babies and small children
- tanning booth visitors
Even dark-skinned people are at risk of skin cancer. Roughly one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to AAD.
A severe sunburn at a young age can increase the risk for getting cancer as an adult.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends you "check your birthday suit on your birthday." If you notice anything changing, itching or bleeding on your skin, see a board-certified dermatologist. Skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early.
How Should I Protect My Baby From The Sun?
Read the label directions on any sunscreen you use. In general, sunscreens should only be used in children over the age of 6 months. Keep younger babies out of the sun; they're skin is thinner and they absorb the sunscreen chemicals readily. Dress infants in lightweight long pants, long-sleeves, and brimmed hats that shade the neck, and keep them in the shade.
In older babies, apply a sunscreen of at least SPF 30 and follow dosing directions. Test your baby's sensitivity to sunscreen by first trying a small amount on the inner wrist. Sunscreens with the ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, or special sunscreens for a baby's sensitive skin may be less irritating.
Be sure babies stay well hydrated, too. If your baby is fussy, crying excessively, or has redness on any exposed skin area they should be moved indoors.
What Is a Broad Spectrum Sunscreen?
It is important to protect yourself from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) sun radiation. Skin cancer and early skin aging is primarily the result of UVA radiation.
Sunburn is primarily due to UVB radiation. Sunscreen products that pass the broad spectrum test as determined by the FDA and protect against both UVA and UVB rays are allowed to be labeled as "broad spectrum."
Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, as recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology.
What's The Best Way To Prevent A Sunburn?
The best way to prevent overall skin damage is by limiting your time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10AM to about 3PM to 4PM. Also:
- Wear long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats to cover up your skin.
- Also, generously apply a sunscreen that is labeled "broad spectrum" (UVA / UVB) with a SPF value of at least 30 that is water-resistant.
- If you aren't covering up, be sure to generously reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours, even if it's cloudy.
- Apply sunscreen more often if you’re working up a sweat or swimming.
- Be sure to apply sunscreen to the tops of your feet, your neck, your ears, your lips, and the top of your head.
- Remember: Snow, sand and water reflect the sun and increase your need for sunscreen coverage.
Does A Higher SPF Sunscreen Protect Your Skin Better?
The sun protection factor (SPF) value indicates the sunscreen level of sunburn protection.
- SPF values only apply to a sunscreen's UVB protection, not UVA.
- Higher SPF values (up to 50) provide greater sunburn protection.
- A sunscreen with SPF 30 blocks an estimated 97% of UVB rays; the added increase in UVB protection is minimal for sunscreens over SPF 50.
- No sunscreen can block 100% of the sun's UVB rays.
SPF numbers like 100 or 150 can give people a false sense of security and entice them to stay in the sun longer without added protection. The FDA has recommended a maximum sunscreen SPF level of 50 and those with SPF >50 should be labeled as SPF 50+.
Follow the label directions, but most sunscreens need to be reapplied every two hours, even those that have a high SPF. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends to apply at least one ounce of sunscreen per application (enough to fill a shot glass ), or more if needed based on body size.
Sunscreens can be labeled as "water resistant" (effective for up to 40 minutes in water or while sweating) or "very water resistant" (effective for up to 80 minutes in water or while sweating).
Should I Use A Sunscreen Every Day?
The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that you use sunscreen every day that you will be outside. The sun emits harmful UV rays year round. Even on cloudy days, up to 80% of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin. Snow, sand, and water increase your need for sunscreen because they reflect the sun’s rays.
Here are some tips for applying sunscreen:
- Apply a generous amount, up to one ounce, or "enough to fill a shotglass." You may need more depending upon your body size.
- Some clinicians recommend the "teaspoon rule": roughly 1 teaspoon of sunscreen to the face and neck area, 2 teaspoons to the chest area and back, 1 teaspoon to each arm (front and back + hands), and 2 teaspoons to each leg (front and back + feet).
- Apply the sunscreen to dry skin 15 minutes before going outdoors.
- Don't forget to protect your lips. Apply a lip balm that contains sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, or after swimming or sweating, according to the package directions.
- Don't forget your feet, back of neck, ears, nose, hands, and back of legs; areas often missed when it comes to sunscreen application. Areas of the head exposed by balding or thinning hair are also areas that should be protected. Wear a protective hat.
Are Sunscreens Safe?
It's important to weigh the risk of any sunscreen use for you or your child versus the risk of a skin cancer growth over your lifetime if you don't use it. Claims that state that sunscreen ingredients are toxic or dangerous to human health have not been proven.
Sunscreen products are regulated as over-the-counter (OTC) drugs by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA also has regulations in place that govern all the safety of sunscreen ingredients.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), preventing skin cancer and sunburn outweigh any unproven claims of toxicity or human health hazard from ingredients in sunscreens.
Using sunscreen, seeking shade and wearing protective clothing are all important behaviors to reduce your risk of skin cancer.
What Should I Know About Spray Sunscreens?
The FDA has reported on the risks of spray sunscreens and the fumes they produce.
To avoid the fumes, never spray sunscreen around or near the face or mouth. It is best to use spray sunscreens in well-ventilated areas. Use caution with spray sunscreens around ignition sources like grills or lighters; they may be flammable.
Spraying sunscreen can increase the chance you will miss an area that may burn, especially if it's windy. Spray the sunscreen into your hands and then generously apply the sunscreen directly to your skin, trying not to miss any spots.
Some sunscreen sprays may be labeled as flammable. Do not apply flammable products to yourself or someone else near an open flame.
It's important to know that the FDA has NOT authorized the marketing of over-the-counter sunscreen products in the form of:
- body washes
What Is The UV Index?
The ultraviolet (UV) index was developed by the National Weather Service to predict the daily risk of sunburn in local areas based upon predicted weather conditions. You might see this reported in the daily weather forecast.
The UV index typically falls between zero and 11+, where zero to two indicates a very low risk of sun exposure; 10 indicates a very high risk of exposure; and 11+ is an extreme risk of unprotected sun exposure.
These numbers can help you to predict your level of local sunburn risk and need for additional sun protection.
Will Using Sunscreen Limit My Vitamin D Absorption?
Vitamin D, a fat-soluble vitamin, comes from sun exposure, food, or dietary supplements. Vitamin D is important for bone strength and can help boost your immune system.
However, getting your vitamin D from the sun can lead to an elevated risk for skin cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends getting your vitamin D from a healthy diet and foods and beverages rich in vitamin D, and/or vitamin D supplements, not from laying out in the sun.
In theory, using sunscreen could decrease your skin’s production of vitamin D and possibly lead to a vitamin D deficiency. However, most people do not use enough sunscreen to block out all of the sun. If you are concerned that you are not getting enough vitamin D, discuss this with your doctor who can measure your levels with a simple blood test.
Foods that contain vitamin D include:
- certain kinds of fish (swordfish, salmon, tuna). Some fish, such as swordfsdh and tuna, may be high in mercury, too, so watch your consumption.
- fortified milk, yogurt, cereal, fruit juices
After talking to your doctor, if you choose an over-the-counter vitamin D supplement, be sure to choose one that contains vitamin D3 (cholecalciferol).
- The recommended daily amount of vitamin D is 400 international units (10 micrograms [mg]) for children up to age 12 months, 600 IU (15 mcg) for people ages 1 to 70 years (including in pregnancy and breast feeding), and 800 IU (20 mcg) for people over 70 years.
- Vitamin D is important to help keep bones strong, and a deficiency can occur in older patients who may not get adequate sunlight.
Finished: Hitting the Beach? Soak Up These Top Sun Safety Tips
- Vitamin D. Fact Sheet for Health Professionals. National Institute of Health. Office of Dietary Supplements. Accessed May 7, 2020 at https://ods.od.nih.gov/factsheets/VitaminD-HealthProfessional/
- American Academy of Dermatology 2019. Sunscreen FAQs. Accessed May 7, 2020. https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/sunscreen-faqs
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). UV Index Overview. Accessed May 7, 2020. https://www.epa.gov/enviro/uv-index-overview
- FDA. Sunscreen: How to Help Protect Your Skin from the Sun. Accessed May 7, 2020. https://www.fda.gov/Drugs/ResourcesForYou/Consumers/BuyingUsingMedicineSafely/UnderstandingOver-the-CounterMedicines/ucm239463.htm#apply
- FDA. For Consumers. Should You Put Sunscreen on Infants? Not Usually. Accessed May 7, 2020. http://www.fda.gov/forconsumers/consumerupdates/ucm309136.htm
- Patient information: Sunburn prevention (Beyond the Basics). Up to Date. Accessed May 7, 2020.
- Vitamin D. American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Accessed May 7, 2020 at https://www.aad.org/media/stats/prevention-and-care/vitamin-d-and-uv-exposure
Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.