Feature Archive

A Guy's Guide to Skin Protection

Before you worship the sun, learn how to avoid a burn.

By Michael Alvear
WebMD Feature

You've got three choices when it comes to protecting your skin from the sun. To avoid painful burns, premature aging, and potentially lethal skin cancer, you can stay indoors (not much fun), you can keep fully covered in dark clothing and a wide-brimmed hat (not very stylish), or, you can slather on the sunscreen from head to toe.

How can you choose from the shelves full of products? Like many men, you might fear "analysis paralysis" when you take a walk down a drugstore aisle full of products.

Here's our advice:

  • Don't even bother buying a sunblock or sunscreen with less than an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of 15. Each level of SPF increases the time you can stay in the sun without burning. For example, if you'd normally start to burn in 10 minutes without protection, you might be able to last up to 150 minutes wearing a product with an SPF of 15.
  • The lighter-skinned you are, the higher the SPF you should use. Still, even if you're as pasty as the Pillsbury Doughboy, you should be fine with SPF 15 as long as you reapply it every two hours or so.
  • UVA, UVB: UB confused? Don't fret. Sunlight emits two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays harmful to human skin. UVB rays are the primary cause of sunburn and skin cancer. UVA rays are somewhat weaker, but still destructive. Guard against both with a "broad spectrum" product containing benzophenones, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or Parsol 1789.
  • PABA has been a basic sun protection ingredient for many years. Unfortunately, it can stain clothes and may cause allergic reactions. It works, but there are PABA-free alternatives that are just as effective, such as the ones listed above.
  • Sunblock or sunscreen? It doesn't matter which you choose. Both work well but in different ways. Sunscreens chemically absorb UV rays so not as many reach your skin; sunblocks physically deflect them.
  • Creams, gels, lotions, wax sticks, or ointments? None have been proven more effective than any other, so use whatever you're most comfortable with on your skin.
  • Cheap or chic? Expensive doesn't mean better. You may prefer the smell or feel of more expensive products, but you won't get better protection.

After you've made your purchase and you're headed outdoors:

  • Apply early. Put on your chosen product 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors, and use an ounce or more -- about the quantity of a shot glass -- to cover your body. Being stingy is a big mistake when it comes to sun protection.
  • Apply often -- over and over again. All sunscreens and sunblocks need to be reapplied, no matter what the label says. Slather it on every 2 hours or immediately after you dry off from a swim (even with water-resistant products). Think of your skin the way you think of a parking meter: If you don't pay attention every couple of hours, you're going to get burned.

And last, what if you burn anyway? Treat yourself with cool baths, moisturizers with only mild ingredients (for instance, alpha hydroxy is bound to sting like a whip on sunburn!), or over-the-counter hydrocortisone creams. Avoid "-caine" products (like benzocaine), as they may cause allergic reactions. And take a pain reliever, such as aspirin as recommended on the package, unless you have a sensitivity to it, a history of stomach ulcers, or your doctor has told you not to take it. Studies show aspirin may help slow the early development of sunburn. If you have a sunburn too severe to treat on your own, you may need to see your doctor.

Originally published May 29, 2000.
Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, May 2002.

©1996-2005 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.
Last Editorial Review: 1/30/2005 10:57:07 PM




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