A spotlight on sunscreen

Summer is here! What you need to know about sunburn and sunscreen
June 19th, 2017

backpacker standing on a rock

A patient who was sporting a bad case of sunburn came in to see Dr. Cory Dietz recently.

“He likes to work outdoors, but every spring, the first time out, it still catches him by surprise,” said Dietz, who practices family medicine at the UCHealth Falcon Medical Center. “When the weather is cool, we don’t always think about using sunscreen.”

As the weather warms up, and we all get out doors more, Coloradans should pay special attention to protecting themselves from the 300-plus days of sunshine we get every year.

“It’s very important,” Dietz said, “mainly because of the higher altitude.” Studies show that for every 1,000 feet you rise in altitude, you get a bit more exposure to ultra-violet rays. That means that along the Front Range people get about 25 percent more exposure than do those who live at sea level.

Sunblock, such as zinc oxide, and sunscreen either prevent or absorb UV radiation from the sun to keep it from reaching your skin.

There’s been some speculation in the past as to the safety of sunscreens, but when used according to directions, they are very safe, Dietz said.

picture of Dr. Cory Dietz
Dr. Cory Dietz practices family medicine at UCHealth Falcon Medical Center.

More about SPF

SPF — sun protection factor — matters.

Most people should use “at least 30,” SPF sunscreen. The numbers can be confusing, but think of it this way, he said: “SPF 30 is twice as protective as SPF 15” in preventing sunburn. The effectiveness of sunscreen pretty much maxes out after 30, but technically, “using 50 supposedly takes you 50 times longer to get a sunburn than if not using anything.”

Children should use sunscreen, too, “although there are different recommendations from different sources. Some experts do not recommend using it for kids under 6 months, but the American Academy of Pediatrics says a little is OK.”

He added: “Babies that young should not be exposed to that much sun anyway.”

Children’s sunscreens differ from those made for adults in that the manufacturers “try to use ingredients less irritating and with fewer allergens than adult sunscreens.”

Sunscreen should be used year round when spending prolonged periods outdoors, not just in the summer.

“Always use it if you are going to have significant exposure, no matter what time of year, because UV rays don’t really change with the seasons,” he said. In fact, serious sunburns can happen in winter, or any time a person is near reflected rays, be it water or snow and ice.

“With those reflected UV rays, you get twice the exposure,” he said.

Sunscreen generally needs to be reapplied every two hours – more often, if you are swimming or sweating heavily.

A general guideline for how much to apply is easy to remember.

“There is something called the teaspoon rule,” he said. “Apply 1 teaspoon to face and neck, 1 teaspoon to the front and another to your back, 1 for each arm and 2 for each leg. That ends up being quite a bit, but it’s the amount that gives you the proper protection.”

How fast can you get a sunburn?

“It depends on your skin type. Folks who are descended from Irish roots are the most susceptible to sunburn, for example. People who are fair-skinned will burn easier and quicker than those with darker skin.  But everybody can get sunburned, no matter what skin type.”

If you sunburn easily, there are other things you can do to protect yourself, like wear clothing with long sleeves, long pants and a hat. And avoid going out in the sun, if you can, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., he added.

How should you treat sunburn at home?

“That’s where skin moisturizer comes in” Dietz said. “Try aloe vera to cool the burn and moisturize the skin. Take an anti-inflammatory like ibuprofen. Cold compresses or a tepid shower also can help give relief,” he said.

And if it’s worse than just your average sunburn?

“If you have blistering or severe pain, seek medical help,” he advised. “And it would depend on the extent of the burn – how much of the body is involved – or if the pain is not relieved with ibuprofen.”

Using sunscreen can protect you from more than just sunburn.

“There is a direct correlation between sun exposure and skin cancers, so that’s the No. 1 concern,” he said. And it also contributes to something called photo-aging – e.g., wrinkling, leathery skin, age spots and just looking older than you are.

So the earlier you use sunscreen the better, he said. “They used to say that most of us get 60 or 70 percent of our sun exposure prior to age 18. I suspect that’s still true.”

The doctor also noted that sunscreen expires.

“There are expiration dates on sunscreen now,” he said, and they can become ineffective or at least less effective after that date.bad

About the author

Linda DuVal is a freelance writer based in Colorado Springs who writes articles for UCHealth.