Q. How does UV exposure impact your skin?
Ultraviolet (UV) rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells and can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging. Exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds is the most preventable risk factor for melanoma.
UVA rays are the most abundant source of solar radiation at the earth's surface and penetrate beyond the top layer of skin. UVB rays are less abundant at the earth's surface and penetrate less deeply into the skin but can also be damaging and are primarily responsible for causing sunburn.
It is important to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. The current SPF scoring system primarily refers to degree of protection against UVB radiation, and scientists at the FDA are working to develop and implement a system to measure UVA protection.
Q. How does sunscreen work?
Most sun protection products work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun's rays. These products contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB rays, the two main components of the sun's rays. UVA and UVB rays damage the skin in different ways, but both can lead to the development of skin cancer.
Most sunscreens use the SPF rating, which stands for sun protection factor. It is a measure of time that the sunscreen can protect against the sun’s rays. So the higher the SPF, the longer the protection. But a good rule of thumb is to reapply every 2 hours.
Q. What should I look for in a sunscreen?
Protect yourself daily using a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with SPF of at least 30.
Q. I've heard some people say you should wear sunscreen year round. Is that true?
Yes. UV radiation can damage skin in the winter, even though the sun is not as strong. The sun's rays can penetrate clouds, haze, and smoke, so sunscreen should be used even on cloudy days.
Q. Why is it important to reapply sunscreen frequently?
There are three reasons why sunscreens should be reapplied frequently:
- Sunscreens can be physically rubbed off, such as when drying yourself with a towel.
- Sunscreens can be washed off when swimming or with heavy sweating.
- Some of the active ingredients in sunscreens start to break down over time. This break down can be accelerated by sun exposure.
These three factors can prevent sunscreens from providing the level of protection indicated by the SPF value. Generously apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outdoors and reapply at least every two hours, or after swimming or perspiring heavily.
Q. If I don’t get enough exposure to light, will I get enough Vitamin D?
A blood test ordered by your doctor is the only way to know if your levels of Vitamin D are sufficient. MRA encourages everyone to beware of the dangers of UV exposure and advises that people do not need to put themselves at risk of melanoma and other skin cancers to get vitamin D. If you and your doctor decide you are not getting enough Vitamin D, vitamin supplements offer a safe alternative source of Vitamin D without carcinogenic risk.
Q. Are tanning beds a safe alternative to being in the sun?
No. Tanning beds are just as damaging as the sun because they emit similar UV radiation that can cause the same type of sunburn and mutations in the skin. The World Health Organization has classified indoor tanning devices as cancer-causing agents. Research shows that those who use indoor tanning devices have up to a 75% increased risk of melanoma. The risk increases with greater years of use, number of sessions or total hours of use.
Many states in the United States and the federal government have taken steps to increase the regulation of tanning devices, specifically use by minors, because of the health problems they pose.
Q. I'm going on vacation and don't want to get a sunburn. Shouldn't I get a "base tan" to protect my skin?
Many people think that a "base tan" protects their skin from a damaging burn. The truth is that a tan is really a sign of skin damage. Your body’s defensive response to harmful UV rays is to generate the pigment melanin to protect its skin cells. Tanning exposes your skin to a greater amount of UV radiation and increases your risk of developing skin cancer. The best way to protect your skin while out in the sun is to use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and avoid the sun in the middle of the day.
Q. Who is most at risk for melanoma?
While some people are more susceptible to melanoma, everyone, no matter what color skin, has some risk. Individuals who have fair skin, moles or freckles, sunburn easily, or have a family or personal history of skin cancer have a higher risk for melanoma. Spending excessive amounts of time in the sun or living in sunny or high-altitude climates also increases your risk.
No matter your skin type or geographic location, you should wear sunscreen, limit sun exposure, and pay attention to changes in your skin.