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Kaleigh Fasanella

Published: 08/18/2022

Hint: The type of SPF you wear matters.

With summer in full swing, it’s high time we talked about sun damage (especially that to your skin) and the importance of taking UV protection seriously. After all, the warm-weather months are essentially synonymous with spending more time outside in the sunshine.

It’s wholly unfortunate, but the sun’s glorious rays — as lovely as they might feel — can lead to dangerous skin cancers, such as melanoma, as well as premature signs of aging (e.g. fine lines and wrinkles, crepiness, sagging). This is why seemingly every dermatologist in the book stresses the importance of not only wearing sunscreen but also remembering to reapply throughout the day. And that's not all: Ask any doc and they'll likely suggest additional precautionary measures, such as wearing protective clothing, shielding your eyes with sunglasses and staying inside during peak daylight hours.

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When it comes down to it, sun protection really doesn’t have to be a drag. In fact, once you find an SPF you adore, slathering it on religiously won’t feel like a chore, but rather an act of self-love. And the same can be said about a pair of shades to safeguard your peepers. But finding protective products that you actually want to use is only one part of staving off sun damage. The other secret to success? Knowing the truth about the sun’s rays and their effects.

Ahead, five facts about sun damage to skin that’ll make you rethink your sun protection routine forever (or at the very least, finally start applying sunscreen every day).

"Safe Tans" Do Not Exist

This one might be especially hard to swallow for all of the sun worshippers out there but there’s no way around it: You can’t get a tan (even if just a shade darker) without it adversely affecting your skin in the long run. "There is no such thing as a ‘safe tan’ because the darkening of the skin known as melanin that we produce when we get a tan is a sign that UV exposure has triggered DNA damage, which cumulatively can lead to photo-aging and skin cancer,” says Marisa Garshick, MD, a board-certified dermatologist based in New York City.

In other words, even if you don’t visibly burn, becoming bronzed by the sun’s rays can still wreak havoc on your skin. Dr. Garshick adds that people who are more likely to get a base tan and not burn tend to be less likely to wear sunscreen and, as a result, accumulate more sun damage.

Repeated sun damage can leave your skin looking dry, wrinkled, discolored and leathery — all of which are signs that the skin has been weakened and, in turn, susceptible to bruising, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And then there’s the most serious threat of tanning on the regular: skin cancer.

Unfortunately, wearing sunscreen from head to toe still isn’t a sure-fire way to steer clear of potential sun damage. On that note…

The Type of SPF Matters

If you’re not using a sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum,” this means you’re not protecting your skin against the full range of UVA and UVB rays — both of which contribute to sun damage on skin. Simply put: UVB rays are commonly associated with burning, while UVA rays contribute more to skin aging, explains Dr. Garshick.

With this in mind, you obviously want protection from both types, hence why owning a broad-spectrum SPF is so crucial. As for the SPF number? “You always want to look for a sunscreen that offers at least SPF 30,” says Dr. Garshick. “And if you can find a SPF 50 or 70 formula that you like, even better."

ICYDK, the SPF number tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when used exactly as directed vs. without it, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. So, in theory, it would take you 30 times longer to burn if you were using a product with SPF 30 than if you weren’t wearing ‘screen at all.

Given this information, you might think that the higher the SPF, the more protection you’ll garner — and, under circumstances (think: in a lab), that's correct. But in real life you may very well forget to reapply, wear protective clothing or spend ample time in the shade, upping your chances of getting tan and, in turn, experiencing sun damage on your skin. Plus, per the Skin Cancer Foundation, people who use products with higher SPFs often lay out in the sun longer thanks to the false sense of security created by the "stronger protection.”

Still, your best bet to safely catch any rays (although, again, you don’t really want to do that overall) is to opt for broad-spectrum sunscreen with at least 30 SPF. Bonus points for using products that are water-resistant, as they’re more likely to last longer through sweaty conditions.

Sun Damage (and Skin Cancer) Don't Discriminate

Repeat after me: Anyone can get skin cancer, despite the still-common belief that those with darker skin tones don’t need to worry about wearing sunscreen.

“Skin cancer can occur regardless of skin color and may not always be recognized early in those with darker skin types, hence why sun protection is so important for prevention,” explains Dr. Garshick. “It can sometimes be detected at a later stage, so it is important that all individuals, regardless of skin color or age, wear sunscreen and get their skin routinely checked.”

It’s also commonly believed that skin cancer shows up later in life after years of sun exposure. But, again, the big C can affect anyone at any age. In fact, melanoma is “one of the most common cancers in people younger than 30 (especially younger women),” according to the American Cancer Society.

Small Doses of Sun Exposure Can Be Healthy

Research shows that regular sun exposure is the ticket to getting enough vitamin D, which is essential for seemingly everything from your bone health to mental well-being. That doesn’t mean you should forgo protection altogether. Rather, you should slather on sunscreen and don gear, such as a hat and sunnies, to score the oft-recommended 10-30 minutes of midday sun exposure a few times a week.

RELATED: Vitamin D Deficiency May Increase COVID-19 Risk

How much time you need to spend in the sun to make sufficient vitamin D depends on factors such as the hour at which you step outside and your skin tone. For example, you’ll likely need to spend less time outside to score ample vitamin D at noon since the sun’s rays are most intense then, according to research. And other studies show that those with lighter skin tones can produce as much vitamin D as those with darker skin tones in a shorter amount of time because they have less melanin, which helps protect skin from excess sunlight.

Reapplication Is Key

In a perfect world, we could apply SPF once in the morning and call it a day. But, alas, this is not the case. If you don’t reapply sunscreen every two hours, you’re simply not getting the adequate protection that your skin needs (and deserves)! And the same goes for if you don’t use enough of the product in the first place.

“In order to get proper UV protection, it’s recommended to apply a nickel-sized dollop or the equivalent of two finger lengths of sunscreen to one’s face and approximately one shot glass worth to one’s body,” says Dr. Garshick. “If you’re not applying this much, and then reapplying throughout the day every two hours — especially if you’re outside when the sun is at its strongest — you’re not going to get the safeguarding your skin needs.”

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