After a tough winter full of snow, ice, thunder, sleet and other weather phenomena we didn’t know existed, Austin has finally made it to summertime. With day after day of 90+ degree weather and nonstop sunshine, you’re going to need to put sunscreen on today or risk pink, splotchy skin tomorrow.
Keep in mind that there is no such thing as a healthy suntan. Even if you survive a day in the sun without turning bright red, you may increase your risk of skin cancer. Sunburn is also not the best way to judge sun exposure since the UVB radiation that causes burns is not the same as the UVA radiation that can lead to cancer.
And not all sunscreens protect against UVA, the deadlier of the two. Make sure that whatever sunscreen you buy offers “broad spectrum” protection, which guards against both kinds of ultraviolet radiation. A high SPF is good, but only to a point because the numbers are meaningless above 50.
More important than the SPF is consistency: Apply sunscreen throughout the day. Some sunscreens are “very water resistant,” which means that they stay effective even after four 20-minute swims. But there are reasons to question the real world applicability of this claim, since, during testing, subjects don’t dry themselves with towels after going in the water.
People also generally spend more time in the sun when they wear sunscreen. It’s because of this psychological effect that, ironically, sunscreen may lead to an increased risk of skin cancer if used inadequately.
As far as actual risks from the sunscreen itself, there aren’t many. The chemicals involved in sunscreen are very safe, very rarely causing anything more than a mild allergic reaction. There’s the potential for it to have a minor effect on estrogen levels and some studies that show extremely small hints of toxicity, though it’s clear that the benefits of sunscreen outweigh possible risks.
This all specifically refers to sunscreen, however. It may be tempting to use products that combine bug spray with sun protection, but this is not advisable. While the chemicals in sunscreen are very safe, even when continually applied throughout the day, the chemicals in insect repellent are not. Put the bug spray on once in the morning if you think you’re going to need it and the sunscreen on throughout the day.
In the end, there are a few simple pieces of advice that can help prevent sunburn and cancer risk and they all begin with sunscreen. Apply it properly at least every two hours and more often if you’re sweating or spending time in the water, regardless of claims of water or sweat resistance. The FDA also advises staying out of the sun during peak hours, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., sticking to the shade and wearing hats, sunglasses and loose, long-sleeved clothing.
But, mostly, make sure you wear plenty of sunscreen: It’ll keep your skin looking young and let you enjoy the Austin summer without worrying about a painful sunburn or something much worse.