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How to use sunscreen for maximum UV ray protection

By Jennifer Fabiano, AccuWeather staff writer

National Sunscreen Day, also known as “Don’t Fry Day,” occurs each year on May 27 as an annual reminder of the importance of using sunscreen.

Though this is an important practice all year round, sunscreen usage during the summer is especially vital. While people are most at risk of sun damage on sunny days between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., ultraviolet (UV) rays can still find your skin on cloudy days and outside peak hours.

Dr. Melissa Piliang, a dermatologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, explains that it’s not enough to just use sunscreen, but to use the right kind and in the right way. Below are guidelines from the American Academy of Dermatology on how to find and use sunscreen in order to best protect oneself from dangerous UV rays.

Sunscreen tips

One of the main mistakes that people make when using sunscreen is that they don't use enough at a time, according to Piliang. An ounce, about the size of a shot glass, should be applied for every two hours in the sun and more frequently if swimming or sweating.

"If you’re reapplying and putting on a thick enough coat, an eight ounce bottle should only last you a couple of days at the beach," Piliang said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration created new guidelines in 2011 to ensure that consumers better understood what to look for when purchasing a sunscreen. The label “Broad Spectrum” was given to sunscreens that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. In addition, sunscreens that are Broad Spectrum and SPF 15 or higher are allowed to advertise that they reduce the risk of sunburn, skin cancer and early skin aging.

While sunburns are usually treated as summertime nuisances, they are actually serious medical conditions that should be treated as such. UV light is radiation, so a sunburn is essentially a radiation burn that damages the DNA in skin cells, collagen and the elastic fibers that are in the deeper layers of the skin.

Piliang explains that people get a tan when exposed to UV rays because your body is responding and trying to repair that damage and protect the skin from further damages. The cells in the outer layer of the skin, called the epidermis, make more melanin pigment to try to protect the skin.

“The melanin sits on top of each keratinocyte like a little hat or an umbrella to protect it from the sun,” Piliang said. Keratinocyte is the major cell type in the epidermis, or the protective outer layer of the skin.


Devon Garrison plays in the pool at the clubhouse of his sub-division in Montgomery, Ala., Tuesday, June 14, 2011. Garrison wears sunscreen with an SPF factor of 100. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Sunburn symptoms are due to the skin attempting to repair itself back to normal. Skin often feels hot to the touch; it itches, is tender and could feel tight. In order to try to correct damage caused by UV rays, the body floods blood into the skin to bring white blood cells. The increased blood flow makes the skin pink and swollen.

Skin will often peel after a sunburn, which is a sign that skin is healing and the damaged layer is being shed. The damaged layer of skin may peel off, but that does not mean the total damage from the sunburn has disappeared.

Damage from sunburns accumulate over time and over the more sunburns you get. One sunburn will not kill you, but the cumulative effects of many sunburns over years can be very dangerous, even potentially leading to skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the United States.

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It is important to use sunscreen when exposed to UV rays even if your skin does not burn, as even minor burns or tans are considered damage to the skin and can eventually lead to skin cancer.

“It’s important for people to understand that there’s no such thing as a safe tan,” Piliang said.

Piliang explains that often people will tell her that they use tanning beds to prepare their skin for vacation after a long winter, but a “safe base tan” does not exist.

“That just adds further damage to the skin,” Piliang said. “Any tan is unhealthy for your skin.”

Any damage from the sun, whether minor or major, will also lead to premature aging. Repeated exposure to UV rays breaks down collagen and inhibits new collagen production. When collagen is destroyed, the skin loses elasticity, which leads to wrinkles.

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