Sunblock explained

Dr. Lily Talakoub tells us what to look for when buying sunscreen as well as how to ensure that your skin stays protected this summer.

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The sun is the number one cause of skin cancer in America. “The damaging UV rays not only increase skin cancer but increase premature skin aging and wrinkles,” explains Dr. Lily Talakoub, a dermatologist at McLean Dermatology and Skincare Center. “Ultraviolet rays from the summer increase every year as our ozone layer ​is decreasing.”

To help combat these harmful environmental factors, Dr. Talakoub breaks down how much protection you are really buying in sunblock and how to check for skin cancer outside of the dermatologist’s office.

What you need to know about sun rays and sunscreen 

There are two different rays that are emitted by the sun: UVA and UVB. UVB are the rays that cause skin burns from excessive exposure. However, UVA rays are much more harmful, “penetrating through window glass and causing DNA damage, skin cancer and  breakdown of the collagen and elastin in the skin,” says Dr. Talakoub.

Dr. Lily Talakoub, Photo by Abby Jiu Photography

To protect our skin, there are two categories of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreen is the most effective in blocking or deflecting UVA and UVB rays from the skin and contains ingredients like zinc and titanium oxide. Chemical sunscreen—sunscreens with chemicals in them like octylcrylen, avobenzone and octinoxate—transforms the rays into heat and releases the heat away from the skin, but doesn’t protect your skin from the deadlier UVA rays.

What the SPF number really means 

SPF, whether it is 20 or 80, feels like a mystery number. The FDA recommends, in terms of basic skin protection, avoiding sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and applying a broad spectrum sunscreen above SPF 30. When a sunscreen says SPF 15, it translates to your ability to be in the sun 15 times longer than you would without sunscreen. Talakoub paints the scenario of applying a “shot glass worth of sunscreen to your face,” saying that if you went from applying SPF 25 to 50, you could use less. In most cases, using a higher SPF is better for staying out in the sun longer, as long as you keep reapplying every two hours and after swimming.

Picking the right sunscreen 

Picking a sunscreen can be overwhelming but it’s important to look at the contents, not just the brand. Talakoub suggests a physical broad spectrum sunscreen that protects skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Since some sunscreens are riddled with toxic chemicals, she suggests products like the Avene SPF 50​ ​Compact with “at least 6 percent zinc oxide or titanium oxide” and avoids sunscreens with PABA, which can cause allergic reactions.

“I love the Armani Maestro UV because it is a sunscreen​ ​with SPF 50​ ​as well as a makeup primer … and the Soleil Toujours SPF 50​ ​spray. It’s a chemical sunscreen but it is a spray that goes on like a cream and blends well into the skin without looking paste-y white,” says Talakoub. In the debate of which is better: aerosol or cream sunscreen, Talakoub says that cream options are better since “most of the sunscreen in a spray bottle aerosols before it gets onto the body.”

Checking for signs of skin cancer

Even if you don’t have a history of skin cancer, it is important to have an exam with a dermatologist at least once a year, says Talakoub. However, once a month, check your skin in the mirror and look for “any moles [that are] changing, that are asymmetric, darker, with color or border variations. And, look for any lesions that are red, scaly or not healing.” She adds that the most important places to apply sunscreen are the places we easily forget: the back of the neck, ears, lips, feet and scalp. These are the areas that develop skin cancer the most.

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