A Sunscreen Survival Guide {Skin Cancer Awareness Month}

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There’s a saying that goes, “I’ve never wrestled an alligator, but I have put sunscreen on a toddler before!”

I am here to tell you that statement is 100% accurate! May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. The way things have been going lately, I can almost guarantee my family will be spending most of the summer outside (thanks, COVID-19). We’re used to spending our summers inside air conditioned movie theaters, exploring the McWane Center, and going to story time at the library. But, things may look very different this summer.

Sunscreen Survival Guide

In preparation for the impending hot, sweaty, outdoor-centric summer we’re all about to endure, I reached out to friend and partner of Birmingham Moms Blog, Dr. Corey Hartman of Skin Wellness Dermatology. Dr. Hartman is here to help me create this Sunscreen Survival Guide.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. So what is the best way to keep your family and yourself protected in the sun? 

Skin cancer and a sunscreen survival guide

Control the Controllable

First things first: lotion or spray sunscreen?

While sprays are often handy and easy to use, Dr. Hartman cautions: “All things being equal (SPF level, physical vs. chemical), lotion sunscreen is more effective than spray sunscreen. Spray sunscreen is convenient, and on a hot day at the beach, it can be cool and refreshing. However, it is difficult to be sure that spray sunscreen covers the entire surface of the skin. Since lotion sunscreen is manually rubbed into the skin, parents can be sure that they have completely coated their child’s skin with an adequate amount of sunscreen. There are a few spray sunscreens on the market that are white when sprayed, and then turn clear. This makes it is easier to track the skin where the sunscreen has been sprayed.”

So while we all know rubbing your kiddos down with lotion isn’t the easiest route, it is the best way to ensure total coverage. Spray is better than nothing, of course. Just do your best to rub it in. That’s easier said than done, I know. Also, some sprays caution against use on children under a certain age, so please check with your pediatrician (or dermatologist) if you have questions about a specific product.

Personally, we tend to do a full lotion application before the swimsuit even goes on (“nekkid” as we say in the South). This way, we don’t miss any tricky areas, and then spray over parts not covered by the swimsuit, rash guard, and/or hat. Clothing provides additional SPF, but make sure sunscreen is applied first. We all know kids are prone to ditching items of clothing at a moment’s notice. 

When selecting an SPF, is there too much of a good thing?

According to Dr. Hartman, “Sun protection factor (SPF) should be in the range of 30 to 50 to be effective at preventing sunburn and exposure that leads to skin cancer. The higher the SPF has not been proven to confer any additional protection. More important is reapplication of sunscreen every two hours of intense sun exposure. Some sunscreens are more water resistant, and therefore are better options during water sports. But this has to do with the chemical makeup of the sunscreen and not the SPF level.”

Wait a second! Not only do we have to pin down a tiny whirling dervish and coat them from head to toe with thick lotion, but we have to do it AGAIN if we’re going to be outside for more than two hours? Indeed. Reapplication is the key to continual protection. Pro-tip for beach reapplication: keep baby powder handy to help keep sand from scratching sensitive areas. Dust powder over sandy skin, and the sand brushes away easily for a smooth reapplication!

Oops! Missed a spot!

Obviously, avoid sunburns at all cost. But in the event one occurs, how concerned should we be? “Sunburns that are blistering, associated with fever, chills, flu-like symptoms, weakness, or extremely painful should prompt a visit to a dermatologist or an emergency room. If the burn is severe, it could lead to sun poisoning, which is associated with nausea and dehydration.”

Dr. Hartman also acknowledges that even protected sun exposure can lead to changes in skin, but these only require medical attention in specific situations. “It is normal to develop freckles, sunspots, and moles even in the teenage years. So there is no need to panic with every new spot that appears. Some of those spots are present at birth, but darken, grow, and develop with age. A rapidly changing growth, a growth that bleeds, or a spot that just looks funny or different from the rest should be evaluated by a dermatologist. The doctor may choose to take action to remove the lesion or document the size and color with notes and photos to monitor the behavior of the growth over time.”

Dermatologist Debunking 

Dr. Hartman shared with me some very common misconceptions (I know I have used the phrase “base tan” repeatedly myself!) and wants to clear up some myths. Here is the truth, directly from the doctor:

  • Dark-skinned people don’t get skin cancer. No one is immune to skin cancer. People of all skin colors, including people who are Black, Hispanic, and Asian can develop skin cancer. While skin cancer occurs more frequently in lighter-skinned people, the death rates are higher in darker-skinned people.
  • I need to get sun exposure to get vitamin D. You don’t need to bake in the sun to get the vitamin D you need to stay healthy. You get enough of this essential nutrient from typical daily exposure and from food.
  • Only older people get skin cancer. Prevention is important at any age. Melanoma is the most common form of skin cancer in young adults age 25-29. It’s also the second most common form of cancer in people 15-29 years old. The younger you are exposed to the sun, the higher your risk for getting skin cancer later in life. This is especially true if you had a blistering sunburn at a young age.
  • A base tan prevents sunburns. There’s no such thing as a safe tan or a tan that prevents sunburns. When ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning booth hit your skin, they damage the DNA of your skin cells. To protect your cells, your body sends melanin–or pigment–to the surface of your skin. So, your skin gets color at the expense of your health. 

Tips from Mama 

Skin cancer and a sunscreen survival guide

Our knowledge of skin cancer and sun protection have evolved drastically over time. Gone are the days of baby oil, iodine (you know who you are), tanning beds, and lemon juice (guilty over here). But now it’s even cool (literally) to have on a giant hat or shirt in addition to whatever beachwear you’re rocking.

As I mentioned before, a “nekkid” application often helps avoid those random red burns in places you “thought you got.” Getting an extra set of hands to aid with hard-to-reach places is helpful, too. There are also plenty of activities during which one doesn’t always think of needing sunscreen: I am always fussing after my husband about his ears and nose when playing golf or his neck when mowing the grass. Even my daily skincare regimen always ends with a moisturizer containing SPF 30 or higher. And remember: you can even get sunburned on an overcast day. 

While we can’t always protect our kids from scraped knees, bee stings, or falling off their bikes, using the correct products and processes make sun protection something we can control. This is so comforting these days when so many other things seem out of our hands.

The Summer of Sun

Being outdoors this summer may look different than it has in the past, and we may be doing a lot more of it. Having proper information helps immensely. Thank you, Dr. Hartman, for your expertise! 

What are some of your sun protection tips, tricks, and hacks? Share with us in the comments below! After all, it does take a village . . . especially to put sunscreen on a toddler!

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Laura Prewitt, 39, is a proud native of Birmingham, having lived here all life with the exception of college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, and a semester abroad in Spain. After graduating in 2004, she moved back to attend UAB, receiving a Masters in Communication Management. Laura has worked in fields ranging from service industry and event planning, to waste management and business development/marketing for a local startup company specializing in custom software development. She is currently a full time SAHM but does take on the occasional freelance marketing project, and is excited for the opportunity to write and share with other parents. Laura has been married to Michael, a senior financial advisor for Merrill Lynch, since 2012 and they have one son, Tristan (4). In her *limited* spare time Laura loves cooking (also eating!), watching sports (mostly football), travelling, reading, going to concerts and experiencing all the fun things Birmingham has to offer!