How much sun exposure is too much, and what should you do to protect your skin?

With the approach of summer June 21, we are constantly bombarded with ads to protect our skin from the sun to prevent skin cancer, which affects over 3.3 million people nationwide.

However, there is a good portion of the country that disregards the warnings as unwarranted hysteria. In fact, in 2014, Dr. Joseph Mercola of the popular heath website mercola.com, wrote an article saying sun exposure and exposure to UVB rays could be healthy, as long as one does not overexpose, or in other words, burn themselves.

So, who is right? Or, could there be an explanation in between?

Christina Cassam, an esthetician (skin care specialist) who owns Studio 13 in Middletown, helped cast quite a bit of light on the topic – no pun intended.

“It is more the overexposure from the sun that causes the skin cancers like melanoma,” Cassam said. “Tanning is the body’s way of protecting the skin so that you can stay out in the sun longer.”

Cassam said one of the benefits of being in the sun was the amount of vitamin D a person can absorb, calling it the best source of vitamin D over food and supplements.

“What people don’t realize is they only need about 20 minutes of sun exposure on your larger extremities to get the recommended amount of vitamin D,” Cassam said. “That is why being out in the sun, for what people would call tanning, would be beneficial.”

Cassam cautioned that staying out so long that you burn is not beneficial to your health.

“UVB rays normally get absorbed onto the top layers of skin, and that is what SPF lotion protects against,” Cassam said. “Then you have the UVA rays, which go a bit deeper and cause free radical damage.”

Cassam noted the time a person can safely stay in the sun varies according to the individual, but to always make sure to wear sunscreen to protect your skin for longer periods of time.

“Let’s say that you are able to spend 10 minutes in the sun without any SPF lotion,” Cassam said. “The number of SPF on the bottle keeps you from burning that many times longer than if you hadn’t used it. That means if you us a 30 SPF, you will be protected for 300 minutes instead of 10.”

What about tanning beds?

On the topic of tanning beds, Cassam said she would not recommend people use them.

“The rays from a tanning bed are much more magnified and heightened, that you get much more than you would from natural sunlight,” Cassam said. “I feel that because of that, any time spent in them, even if you don’t burn, should be considered overexposure.”

However, Cassam said she believes the awareness that has been steadily growing over the last few years, has caused improvements in the beds that make them better for clients than they were 15 years ago.

Tanning beds are considered a class one carcinogen due to the UV radiation they emit. In fact, skincacer.org even says that women that began using a tanning bed before the age of 35 increased their chances of developing skin cancer by 75 percent.

However, in 2012, Ivan Oransky the editor of Reuters Health, wrote an article on the Association of Health Care Journalists’ website that countered that stat. The piece used a study by AHCJ member Hiran Ratnayake which found less than three-tenths of 1 percent of those who tanned frequently developed melanoma, while less than two-tenths of 1 percent of those who didn’t tan frequently developed melanoma.

Delaware native Kimberly Touchard, who is now in her 50s was quick to note that she has been using tanning beds since she was 16 without an issue.

However, she only uses salons that are certified, meaning they are required to explain the risks associated with tanning and do their best to advise clients on the safest way to get a tan.

“I’m not a tan person. I’m actually very pale. My husband actually jokes that if you were to turn all the lights off, I’d glow in the dark,” Touchard said. “But, the only time that has ever affected me was when I was 15 and I went outside without any protection and got sun poisoning.”

Touchard said she remembers the experience well, recalling her misery, saying that is the reason she now goes to tanning salons to get what is called a “base tan,” so that her skin is more tolerant to the sun during the summer months.

“I think if you do it right, you’ll be fine,” Touchard said. “If you start out in the hottest bed right off the bat, and you don’t follow the plan the people set for you, they can’t guarantee that you won’t burn.”

Touchard said she begins her tanning sessions at four minutes, then gradually works up. However, she’s been told by the salon if she begins to feel any heat, she should turn off the machine.

“If you walk into a salon, and they tell you can begin a session at 20 minutes and leave you to it, that should be a red flag,” Touchard said.

While not a fan of the tanning bed industry in the slightest, Salina Kennedy of Pennsylvania, knows the industry isn’t likely to be shut down, and simply wishes that it would be a requirement for tanning salons to post warning labels.

“Tanning beds are a class one carcinogen, just like arsenic,” Kennedy says. “We put warning labels on cigarettes. We put warning labels on our food for goodness sakes. Why aren’t we putting warning labels on tanning beds?

“I’m not for attacking people or a business. I just want to educate people so that they are aware of what they are doing.”

How to protect your skin

Kennedy, who runs her own foundation called the Northeast Pennsylvania Melanoma Exchange, advises that people use basic protection when they go into the sun, especially children.

“If you are burned badly five times or more as a child, you are more likely to develop skin cancer,” said Kennedy. “Just make sure to use SPF 30 sunscreen that has contains zinc oxide. Don’t forget to reapply, and to wear sunglasses and a hat.”

Kennedy has first-hand knowledge of how childhood burns can affect your skin later in life, getting a melanoma diagnosis when she was 41 that was caused by childhood burns, she said.

“I now have a seven-inch scar on my back,” Kennedy said. “After they found that, they found it in the lymph nodes of my left armpit and had to remove those.

“This type of cancer is so dangerous, because you don’t even know you have it a lot of times. That’s why it’s so important to protect your skin.”

Cassam’s opinion on using sunscreen mirrored Kennedy’s. Cassam suggests using no more than SPF 30, while also recommending sunscreen with the main “blockers.”

“There are two main ones that I always tell my clients to look for,” Cassam said. “They are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.”

Cassam noted that more chemicals are used in the sunscreens with higher SPFs, so she would not recommend those.

“Most people see a 70 or a 100 SPF and think ‘Oh, I’m going to buy this and I’m going to be covered,’” Cassam said. “There are more chemicals in those types though, and I try to tell my clients to go the more natural route and get the blockers, and to apply more often.”

Cassam said applications every hour to 90 minutes should be sufficient.

The verdict

So, how should you plan for your summer? The answer is by being safe.

According to Cassam, a tan is not a detriment to your health, and can actually allow your skin to tolerate the sun longer, however that doesn’t mean you should forget your protection. Remember to wear a hat and sunglasses, while applying an SPF 30 sunscreen that contains either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Lisa Henry, the Bureau Chief for Delaware’s Bureau of Chronic Disease Prevention, also suggests that you should always wear sun protection, and seek shade if outside during the between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

“The sun is at its highest between the hours of 10 to 4,” Henry said. “During that time we encourage people who are outside to use SPF sunscreen, and to seek shade if they can.”

Henry also emphasized that while Vitamin D production is cut down with the use of sunscreen, it doesn’t stop the body from producing Vitamin D altogether.

“I was just reading an article by a dermatologist on this topic,” Henry said. “According to the article I read, you still produce a limited amount of vitamin D, between 2 and 7 percent.

“For example, if you have an SPF of 15, it is protecting you from 93 percent of the UBV rays, so you are still getting 7 percent of the UBV rays, which are the ones that help you produce Vitamin D.”