When Summer finally arrives, you may want to spend all your time outdoors. However, keeping your skin healthy and safe during the summer months is crucial. One way to do this is applying sunscreen. However, with so many options it can be a challenge to figure out which one is best for you. 

Neelam Vashi, MD, discusses the importance of sunscreen, when and how much you should use, and picking the right SPF for you.

Featured Speaker:

Neelam Vashi, MD

Dr. Neelam A. Vashi is the dermatologist at BMC. She is Director of the BU Cosmetic and Laser Center, Founder and Director of the BU Center for Ethnic Skin, and an Assistant Professor of Dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine.

Learn more about Neelam Vashi, MD


Melanie Cole (Host):  We all know that a sunburn can be pretty painful. But it’s not the only reason or even the most important reason for using sunscreen. My guest is Dr. Neelam Vashi. She’s a dermatologist at Boston Medical Center. Dr. Vashi, tell us why sunscreen is so important, besides just stopping a sunburn. 

Neelam Vashi, MD (Guest):  Sunscreen is very important just as you said it prevents sunburn, but it also reduces risk of skin cancer and it helps prevent early signs of skin aging such as wrinkles and brown spots that occur on sun exposed areas. 

Melanie:  So, is sunscreen safe for everybody? Really who needs it? Is it safe to give to babies? Is it safe to give to people with very sensitive skin?

Dr. Vashi:  Yeah so, everyone needs sunscreen. Sunscreen use can help as I said to prevent skin cancer by protecting one from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, in old people, in young people, those with sensitive skin. There are different formulations out there to allow for easy application and for one to like the sunscreen that they are using and that feel good on the skin. 

Melanie:  Tell us about ultraviolet rays. There are different types. We hear about UVA, UVB. What are the types that we are supposed to pretty well steer clear of?

DrVashi:  Sure. So, when you look at a sunscreen, it will often be labelled as broad spectrum and what that means it is protecting one from UVA and UV rays which can both cause sunburn and skin cancer. 

Melanie:  So, now we see the numbers and you say they say broad spectrum, but they also have an SPF on them. And some people buy 75, and some people buy 8. What does that SPF mean and what number should we be buying?

Dr. Vashi:  Right, so the numbers that we should be buying is when we see a sunscreen that has an SPF of 30 or higher. While SPF of 15 is the FDA’s minimum recommendation for protection against skin cancer and sunburn; we as dermatologists, and our academy, recommend choosing a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30. 

Melanie:  Getting the higher ones, does that matter? I have heard differing opinions on whether or not 55, 60, 75, whether those are worth using or if 30 is really just sufficient.

Dr. Vashi:  Yes, 30 is sufficient. A SPF of 30 will block about 97% of the sun’s UVB rays. Higher number SPF blocks just slightly more of the sun’s UVB rays but no sunscreen can block 100% of the sun’s rays. So, it’s also important to remember that high number SPF lasts the same amount of time as low number SPF. So, a high number SPF does not allow you to just spend additional time outdoors without reapplication. All sunscreens should actually be applied approximately every two hours according to the time on the label even on cloudy days and after swimming or also even after sweating. 

Melanie:  What a good point, that it doesn’t necessarily give you more time. It’s just a maybe a thicker substance or protects a little bit better, but how – you said we should do it every two hours or so. What about going in water and stuff?

Dr. Vashi:  So, we were talking about the label a little bit. So, on the label, you’ll see – you should see that it’s broad spectrum, so that it’s again, that means the sun protects against both UVB and UVA rays and helps prevent skin cancer and sunburn. The second thing one should look for is that SPF of 30 or higher and then we should look for is it water resistant. So, when it says water resistant; that means it’s effective for up to 40 minutes in water and when it says very water resistant; it’ effective for up to 80 minutes in the water. This means that the sunscreen will provide protection while swimming and sweating up to those times listed on the label. So, I do believe that that’s something important to look for also when purchasing a sunscreen. Manufacturers, they used to be able to write waterproof or sweatproof; but they are actually banned from claiming that now because it was felt that those terms are misleading, so really it should be just water-resistant term that one is looking for. Even when using a water-resistant sunscreen that will be effective for up to 40 minutes in water; one should still reapply after getting out of the water or after sweating a lot. 

Melanie:  Dr. Vashi, do sunscreens expire? So, should we buy new sunscreen every year?

Dr. Vashi:  So, if you were using actually sunscreen every day and in the correct amount, a full bottle shouldn’t really last that long. But if you do find a bottle let’s just say in your cabinet or your drawer and you haven’t used it for some time; here are some guidelines you can follow. So, the FDA actually requires that all sunscreens retain their original strength for at least three years. Some do include an expiration date, so if the expiration date has passed; I would recommend throwing it out. If you buy a sunscreen that does not have an expiration date on it; it may be hard to remember but try writing the date that you bought it on the bottle. That way you will know when to throw it out. Again, it is stays good for at least three years and then just if you look at the sunscreen and there are visible signs that it may just no longer be good and that may just be obvious. Any change in color, consistency at that time it is probably the right time to purchase a new bottle of sunscreen. 

Melanie:  Do you have a preference over creams versus some of these sprays that are out there? I mean especially when we have got wiggling little ones and we are trying to get sunscreen on them. Does that make a difference at all?

Dr. Vashi:  The FDA continues to evaluate the safety and effectiveness of these spray sunscreens that can sometimes be easier to use. The challenge in using spray is that it’s difficult to know if you have used enough to cover all the sun exposed areas and so that just may result in inadequate coverage. So, when using a spray, I usually just say make sure to spray an adequate amount and then rub it in. Also, these spray sunscreens it’s important to avoid inhaling it, never spray it in or around the mouth. The other option is to just spray it on someone’s hands and apply it. So then one avoids inhaling it. And then you brought up children so, I would just be very careful with children using the sprays. I personally, on my children, I use the creams and lotions and just be careful about the direction of the wind and just avoid inhalation. 

Melanie:  How about getting teens to use sunscreen Dr. Vashi? Because of course, they want to get a tan and appealing to their vanity or telling them they are going to get wrinkles; I don’t know that that necessarily makes a difference. If you tell them they are going to get skin cancer; they are not thinking long-term like that. 

Dr. Vashi:  Yeah, I think that instilling the importance of sun protection, a natural look at a young age is important. In today’s time, yes, it’s people wanting to tan, and they want to go out to the sun and it is hard for teenagers to see the long haul and that it can prevent skin cancer. But I do sometimes, in my younger population, I have found that actually advocating for the aging process does help to promote some protective behavior like brown spots and wrinkles. I have personally found that to be more motivating. 

Melanie:  Yeah, if you scare them a little bit maybe then they will adhere to a good sunscreen regimen and what about vitamin D, because now people are hearing vitamin D deficiency. Does using sunscreen limit the amount of vitamin D that you get?

Dr. Vashi:  So, if one is eating a good diet, you should be able to get enough vitamin D. So, if you are concerned that you are not getting enough vitamin D, you should probably discuss your options for getting vitamin D with supplements with your doctor. And many people can get the vitamin D they need from foods, vitamin supplements as this approach can hopefully give one enough vitamin D without increasing the risk for cancer. Because overall, yes, sunscreen may decrease your skin’s production of vitamin D, but I think if even other ways like food and vitamins one should be okay.

Melanie:  What about the products that combines sunscreen with bug repellant?

Dr. Vashi:  So, I usually for those kind of products, I usually just recommend using them separately. I think that just using a bug repellent and a sunscreen individually rather than the combined product is better. 

Melanie:  So, wrap it up for us Dr. Vashi with your best advice, what you tell people every day about preventing skin cancer, which can be so insidious, by using sunscreen, a simple solution and what you want people to know about UVA protection and the SPF that’s on the label. Kind of put it in a nice, neat little package for us. 

Dr. Vashi: Sure, so in summary, I believe, and we believe as dermatologists that everybody needs sunscreen. Sunscreen use can help prevent skin cancer by protecting one from the sun’s harmful rays and anyone can get skin cancer regardless of age, gender or race and in fact it is estimated that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. So, to prevent skin cancer and to help prevent early signs of skin aging, wrinkles and brown spots; overall, we recommend looking for a sunscreen that has on its label that it is broad spectrum, has SPF of 30 or higher, so taking all of those measures should ensure that your skin is properly protected from the sun. 

Melanie:  Thank you so much Dr. Vashi, for being with us today, for sharing your expertise in this really important topic as we come into the summer months, it’s important that people understand what SPF means and how to use sunscreen properly. This is Boston Med Talks with Boston Medical Center. For more information, you can go to www.bmc.org that’s www.bmc.org . This is Melanie Cole. Thanks so much for listening.