Because of the ultraviolet radiation it emits, the sun is inherently dangerous to human skin. In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology stipulates that there is no safe way to tan. Tanning is the skin's natural response to damage from the sun. Additionally, the Environmental Protection Agency proclaims that everybody, regardless of race or ethnicity, is subject to the potential adverse effects of overexposure to the sun. That's why everyone needs to protect their skin from the sun every day.

How We Burn

When ultraviolet light penetrates the epidermis it stimulates melanin, the substance responsible for skin pigmentation. Up to a point, the melanin absorbs dangerous UV rays before they do serious damage. Melanin increases in response to sun exposure, which is what causes the skin to tan. This is a sign of skin damage, not health. Sunburns develop when the UV exposure is greater than the skin's natural ability to protect against it.

Sunscreens and Sunblocks

The sun emits two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays that are harmful to human skin. UVA rays penetrate deep into the dermis and lead to wrinkles, age spots and skin cancers. UVB rays are responsible for causing sunburn, cataracts and immune system damage. Melanoma is thought to be associated with severe UVB sunburns that occur before the age of 20.

Sunscreens absorb ultraviolet light so that it doesn't reach the skin. Physical sunscreens protect your skin from the sun by deflecting or blocking the sun's rays. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun's rays. Some chemical filters can scatter sun rays, but still mostly just absorb them. Chemical filters tend to be more irritating to skin and if it gets in your eyes; it can make your eyes sting and water. Some can cause allergic reactions. Titanium dioxide protects against UVB rays, but not the full spectrum of UVA rays, so most Titanium dioxide sunscreens are formulated with other chemical sunscreens or along with Zinc oxide. Zinc oxide protects against the entire spectrum of UVB and UVA rays.

Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide start protecting immediately upon application. When using chemical sunscreens, you must wait 20 minutes after application for effective sun protection. Chemical filters offer more coverage against UVA and UVB rays than physical sunscreens, but the range of protection will depend on the particular active ingredient and its stability. Avobenzone, for example, protects against the full spectrum UVA rays.

There is no sunscreen or sunblock that works 100%. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration regulates the manufacture of sunscreens. Sunscreens are given an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) number that indicates how long a person can remain in the sun without burning. It is recommended that people use products with a SPF of 30 or greater. Sunscreens are not generally recommended for infants six months old or younger. Infants should be kept in the shade as much as possible and should be dressed in protective clothing to prevent any skin exposure and damage.

There is no such thing as "all-day protection" or "waterproof" sunscreen. No matter what the SPF number, sunscreens need to be re-applied every 2 to 3 hours. Products that claim to be "waterproof" can only protect against sunburn up to 80 minutes in the water. Products labeled "water resistant" can only protect against sunburn up to 40 minutes in the water. Reapply sunscreen after being in the water.

Even in the worst weather, 80% of the sun's UV rays can pass through the clouds. Additionally, sand reflects 25% of the sun's UV rays and snow reflects 80% of the sun's UV rays. That's why sunscreen needs to be worn every day and in every type of weather and climate. The sun's intensity is also impacted by altitude (the higher the altitude the greater the sun exposure), time of year (summer months) and location (the closer to the Equator, the greater the sun exposure). Too much sun can make your skin wrinkly and might even give you skin cancer.

Protecting Yourself From Sun Exposure

  • Look for sunscreens that use the term "broad spectrum" because they protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Choose a sunscreen with a minimum SPF rating of 30.
  • Apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before you head out into the sun to give it time to seep into the skin.
  • Apply sunscreens liberally. Use at least one ounce to cover the entire body.
  • Use a lip balm with SPF 30 or greater to protect the lips from sun damage.
  • Re-apply sunscreen immediately after going into water or sweating.
  • Re-apply sunscreen every 2 to 3 hours.
  • Use sunscreen every day regardless of the weather.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect the eyes from UV rays.
  • Wear wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing to limit skin exposure to the sun.
  • Stay in the shade whenever possible.
  • Avoid using tanning beds.

The main reason people get skin cancer is because they were exposed to too much sun on their skin, especially when they were young. There's no way to know for sure who will get skin cancer someday and who won't. And most kinds of skin cancer can be cured if you see it and go to the dermatologist right away. But if you protect your skin from the sun now, there's a better chance you won't get skin cancer in the first place. You'll also get fewer wrinkles and age spots.

Treating a Sunburn

If you experience a sunburn, get out of the sun and cover the exposed skin as soon as possible. A sunburn will begin to appear within 4 to 6 hours after getting out of the sun and will fully appear within 12 to 24 hours. Mild burns cause redness and some peeling after a few days. They can be treated with cold compresses on the damaged area, cool baths, moisturizers to prevent dryness and over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams to relieve any pain or itching. It is also important to drink plenty of fluids when you experience any type of sunburn.

More serious burns lead to blisters, which can be painful. It is important not to rupture blisters as this slows down the natural healing process and may lead to infection. You may want to cover blisters with gauze to keep them clean. Stay out of the sun until your skin has fully healed. In the most severe cases, oral steroids may be prescribed to prevent or eliminate infection along with pain-relieving medication.