How to Stay Safe in the Summer Sun

Michele Brannan, MPAS, PA-C
Tuesday August 30, 2016
With the summer in full swing, patient education hasaligned itself with anticipated ailments related to sun exposure. Thankfully, there are several protective measures that only require a little forethought, such as packing extra sun-screen and fluids for a day outside in the heat.

It is important to first acknowledge that sun protection should be regarded year-round. Clinical and epidemiological evidence shows that malignant melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—is seen in patients who have experienced repeated intense exposuren to sunlight.1This implies that sunlight in the summer months alone is not the only factor at play. In fact, ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels can be high even on cloudy days.2
UV Radiation
This is responsible for sunburn, photoaging, and skin cancer. Five percent of UV radiation is called UV-B,3 which causes sunburn, hyperpigmentation, and skin cancer. The rest of UV radiation is called UV-A; of this type, UV-A1 (long wavelength) is less potent than its counterpart, UV-A2 (short wave-length), which can have detrimental effects similar to UV-B. In the continental United States, the hours between 10am and 4pm present the most dangerous UV exposure.4
Repeated or extensive exposure to sunlight is a definite risk factor for melanoma.5 Tanning bed use, especially before age 35, also increases melanoma risk.6 Notably, exposure to UV radiation is the most important risk factor for basal cell skin carcinoma (BCC). Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is less common on non-sun exposed areas of the skin, while sunexposed sites are the most common locations for SCC.7
The global incidence of malignant melanoma continues to rise and is increasing faster than any potentially preventable cancer in the United States.8-10
Of the non-melanoma skin carcinomas, the majority of the rest are BCC, according to the American Cancer Society. Moreover, there appears to be a high prevalence of non-melanoma skin cancer in the United States.11

These contain filters to reflect or absorb UV radiation. In 2011, the FDA administered guidelines for labeling sunscreen products. Now, only sunscreens that pass the FDA’s test for protection against both UV-A and UV-B radiation can be labeled “broad spectrum.” Furthermore, only products that meet FDA standards and are at least SPF 15 can be designated as those that decrease the risks of skin cancer and photo aging. The FDA also mandated that sun protection factor (SPF) be capped at 50 and sunscreens with a higher SPF be labeled as “50+.”12
A sunscreen termed “water-resistant” means the SPF is maintained for 40 minutes of water activity. Very water-resistant” implies 80 minutes. The FDA has expunged all labels of “sweat-proof” and waterproof.”12
Sunscreens are typically formulated with organic and inorganic filters. The former absorbs UV and converts it to heat. Avobenzone is an example of an organic filter. Inorganic filters, such as zinc ide and titanium dioxide, reflect and scatter UV light. Inorganic sunscreens are generally more stable and have low irritating and sensitizing potential. This type also offers broad-spectrum against both UV-A and UV-B. The combination of both organic and inorganic filters affords maximum efficacy against the entire UV spectrum.13
SPF is often a confusing concept for the average patient because the relationship between SPF and protection is not linear. The notion that SPF 30 is twice as effective as SPF 15 is a myth that may need explaining to the patient. When properly applied, a sunscreen with SPF 15 protects the skin from 93% of UV-B radiation, while SPF 30 provides 97% protection.13
All individuals, regardless of skin phototype, are subject to the adverse effects of UV radiation. Subsequently, everyone can benefit from sunscreen use. However, light-skinned individuals are more susceptible to both chronic and acute skin changes from skin exposure, and thus they reap the most benefit from routine SPF product use. In response to the question, “Who needs sunscreen?”, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) states, “Everyone.”14
Key words for the astute clinician to impart on patients are “repeatedly” and “liberally.” Sunscreens must be applied in this fashion to be protective. Timing is also important, and sunscreens should be applied 15 to 30 minutes ahead of planned sun exposure to allow time for maximum absorption. Then, reapplication is necessary every 2 hours. All sunscreens wash off with swimming and sweating, and despite a label of “water-resistance,” products still need to be reapplied.13
To achieve the full SPF value, 2 mg/cm of sunscreen is needed, which is approximately the amount required to fill a 1-oz (30-mL) shot glass. It has been reported that most patients do not apply a sufficient amount of sunscreen in order for it to be effective; hence, SPF30 or more, instead of SPF 15, is recommended for adequate protection.15 Accordingly, the AAD recommends broad-spectrum protection with SPF 30 or higher and water resistance.14
One of the most profound benefits of diligent sunscreen use is the prevention of skin cancer. Regular use of sunscreen has been found to reduce the incidence of malignant melanoma. 16 Strong evidence exists that sunscreens prevent the development of actinic keratoses and SCC.17,18Study results have also shown a statistically insignificant reduction in BCC incidents with sunscreen use.17
Sunscreen may prevent chronic skin photo damage or photo aging, and thus pigmentation and wrinkling, as well as photodermatoses.19 Rarely, sunscreens can elicit an allergic reaction or contact dermatitis. Nevertheless, they are generally very effective in photo protection when applied appropriately.

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