Summer is in full swing and for residents in Texas’ Golden Triangle region that means that they are feeling the full, unrelenting effects of the summer sun. While Texas summers are notoriously hot, they are also fun! Many Texans enjoy lounging poolside with their friends and family, heading to the beach, catching a game of sand volleyball, and hosting or attending summer cook outs and barbeques. There are also countless other outdoor activities like hikes, biking, and a fully array of sports. One thing is almost a given: plenty of time outdoors in the sun. That makes sunscreen the often unsung summer hero, protecting countless families from painful sunburns and skin damage. Let’s take a closer look at why sunscreen is needed and how it works.
The Need for Sun Protection
Just about everyone has had at least one painful sunburn that provides a very memorable and compelling reason to reach for a tube of sunscreen. Sunburns occur in response to the skin’s prolonged exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. Specifically it is the short wave, UVB radiation that causes sunburns. Sunburns themselves may range from a relatively mild sunburn where the skin is only red, soreness and discomfort to quite severe with significant pain, blisters, peeling, and infections. People with lighter skin tones are more susceptible to skin damage because they have less melanin in their skin. Melanin provides the skin with protection from the sun and it is also the pigment responsible for darker, tanned skin.
However, sunburns are only part of the problem. UV radiation, especially UVA, which is the longer wavelength form that penetrates more deeply is responsible for age-related skin damage like wrinkles, leathering, sagging, and blemishes. UVA radiation also exacerbates the damage done by UVB radiation, leading to worse sunburns.
Sunburns and wrinkles aside, the sun can have an even more insidious effect: skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the US and the malignant melanoma version of it is potentially life threatening and disfiguring. Both UVA and UVB radiation are believed to contribute to skin cancer. Emerging evidence also suggests that UV radiation can trigger processes in the skin that can cause skin damage to continue for up to three hours, even after the person goes inside or seeks out shade. The bottom line is that to minimize all these risks it is crucial to apply sunscreen prior to sun exposure.
Understanding How Sunscreen Works
Sunscreen works by preventing the sun’s UV radiation from reaching the skin. There are a variety of different chemical compounds which may act as the active ingredient in sunscreen but the most common two are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Many sunscreens employ multiple active ingredients to provide a broad range of UVA/UVB protection. The sunscreen is also likely to contain a listing referring to its SPF.
SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor” and it refers to the amount of protection the sunscreen is providing. Most people understand that higher number mean higher protection, but there are a lot of misconceptions about SPFs. For example while SPF 15 and SPF 30 are both common numbers, it is incorrect to assume that SPF 30 offers twice the protection or lasts for twice as long. Instead a sunscreen’s SPF is measured based on how how long it will take someone to redden without sunscreen rather than with sunscreen. In general an SPF of 15 blocks about 93% of the UV rays while SPF 30 blocks about 97% and SPF 50 blocks about 98%. It is impossible to block all of the sun UV rays and it is crucial to remember that sunscreen – regardless of the SPF – needs to be reapplied about every 2 hours to remain effective.
It is also important to use ample sunscreen. Studies indicate that it takes about 1 oz of sunscreen to provide full protection for most people, but that users routinely end up applying only about half to a quarter the amount that they should be, thereby compromising the efficacy of the sunscreen. Sunscreen should be applied about a half hour before sun exposure to give it plenty of time to bind with the skin. It should then be reapplied every 2 hours and water resistant sunscreen should be used if the person will be going in the water, or simply sweating heavily.
Knowing When to Seek Medical Attention for Sun Damage
It is important to have suspicious moles checked out by a doctor to screen for skin cancer. Such moles may develop quickly and often have irregular borders and lack symmetry, are large, have more than one color, and evolve over time. The earlier skin cancer is caught the better the long-term prognosis.
Severe sunburns can also potentially require medical attention if the sunburn covers a large portion of the person’s body and causes blistering, is accompanied by a high fever or severe pain, is infected, or doesn’t begin to improve after a few days. As always Golden Triangle Emergency Center is committed to protecting the health and well being of our patients.