Seven Ways to Protect Your Skin from the Summer Sun

Want to avoid wrinkles, pigmentation, and skin cancer? Read on.


Nobska Beach on Cape Cod image via shutterstock

The sun will come out tomorrow (really, it will), so even though most of us are still waiting on summer’s arrival, it’s important to know how to get your skin ready for the summer sun. Cheryl Gray, a dermatologist at Mount Auburn Hospital, tells us how to protect our skin this summer with these skin health and cancer prevention tips.

1. There’s no such thing as a safe tan from the sun. “No tan caused by exposure to UV is safe,” Gray says. “Tanning is the body’s response to DNA damage from ultraviolet radiation, and DNA damage is directly linked to skin cancer, wrinkles, and other signs of aging. Spray and other artificial tans are generally considered safe.”

2. Some areas of the body are more susceptible to sun damage than others. “Areas that are more exposed [to the sun] are more susceptible to sun damage, and are therefore more common places to develop skin cancer,” Gray says. “The scalp, ears, and nose are particularly vulnerable. It is also important to be aware of lips being exposed to the sun, as we often do not use sunscreen on our lips, but they can be damaged and can develop skin cancers.”

3. Re-apply sunscreen every two hours. “Look for sunscreens that are broad spectrum, meaning broad coverage of UVA and UVB. The SPF of a sunscreen only refers to its coverage of UVB—the primary cause of sunburn—but we know that UVA is an important contributor to skin cancer and premature aging,” Gray says. However, there is some controversy over the safety of chemical sunscreens, so if you’re concerned, Gray suggests looking for the active ingredients of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and re-applying every two hours.

4. There is minimal benefit of an SPF higher than 50. “An SPF 15 sunscreen blocks approximately 93 percent of UVB radiation, while an SPF 30 sunscreen blocks nearly 97 percent, and SPF of 50 blocks approximately 98 percent,” Gray says. “There is minimal benefit above an SPF of 30 from a UVB perspective.” But, Gray adds, it’s important to keep in mind that the SPF value is only a measure of coverage for UVB. Without adequate UVA coverage, there is still DNA damage and increased risk of cancer and aging.

5. Wear a hat and sun protective clothing. “Even more important than sunscreen is the use of broad brimmed hats, sun protective clothing, sunglasses, and utilizing shade,” Gray says. “Some clothes such as rash guards have tested SPF values. In terms of clothing, tightly-woven fabric offers better protection. If you can see through clothing, it is less protective. Darker clothing is also more protective, so white t-shirts often do not provide enough protection. Tight clothes that are more stretched when worn are more likely to let UV radiation through.”

6. Time of day matters. “The most intense sunlight occurs between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.,” Gray says.

7. The term “slow burn” applies to a variety of things. “It can take up to six hours to get the full effect of the burn, so getting out of the sun at first signs of a burn is important,” Gray says. “Stay hydrated with plenty of water, as burns can cause you to lose fluid, and moisturize your skin with an ointment such as Vaseline. Do not scrub or pick at your skin. Also, taking Ibuprofen for a couple of days can calm inflammation and may help prevent damage.”

Gray’s offers this sun skin care cheat sheet to keep in mind while out this summer:

  • Most of your sun exposure does not occur at the beach. Day to day sun, even just a few minutes at a time, contribute more to your cumulative sun exposure and risk of UV damage.
  • Although car windshields are partially treated to filter out UVA, the side windows let in more than 60 percent of the sun’s UVA radiation. UVB is the radiation associated with sunburn, but UVA contributes to skin cancer and premature aging. So you may not get a burn in your car, but you are getting a lot of damage.
  • Apply 1 ounce (about a shot glass full) 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow the ingredients to fully bind to the skin. Most of us do not use enough sunscreen to get the full SPF value, especially if we are relying on the sunscreen in a daily moisturizer.
  • Remember to reapply sunscreen daily. If you put on a moisturizer with a sunscreen on in the morning, it has worn off by the end of the day when you are getting back in your car to drive home. Keep sunscreen in your car.
  • 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure is acquired before age 18.