What Dermatologists Wish You Knew About Sun Protection

I have a family history of skin cancer, which means I’m at higher risk of developing it, so I have a standing dermatology appointment every August.

This year, while my dermatologist examined every inch of my skin — including the territory between each toe — I tried not to chat her up, so she could concentrate. After a while, however, I couldn’t resist asking her: What did she wish her patients knew about sun protection?

Fifteen minutes later, we were still deep in conversation. So I decided to pose the question to five other dermatologists. Here’s what you should know.

Car windshields are typically treated to protect drivers from ultraviolet rays that cause skin damage, but side and rear windows may not offer the same protection, said Dr. Jeremy Brauer, a dermatologist in New York City and a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

“This means UV radiation can reach you through these windows,” he said, adding that chronic UVA exposure through windows can increase skin cancer risk.

When you’re in your car, protect your skin with sunglasses, clothing (such as long sleeves and a hat) and a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, Dr. Brauer advised. “You can also consider installing UV-blocking window film on your car windows,” he said.

Sunscreen spray is convenient, but people often use it incorrectly, said Dr. Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital. “You cannot spray a plume of sunscreen into the air and then walk into it the way you might do with perfume,” he said.

Instead, he said, hold the can one inch from your skin and spray for a few passes until the surface of your skin glistens. Then rub it in to ensure you cover any missed areas.

Blood pressure medications, prescription acne treatments such as tretinoin and isotretinoin, and even over-the-counter medications such as NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including ibuprofen and naproxen) contain compounds that may cause photosensitivity — a change activated by sunlight that can make skin more sensitive to burns, said Dr. Loren Krueger, assistant professor of dermatology at the Emory University School of Medicine.

When taking these medications, “consider that only a short burst of sun may cause you to burn,” Dr. Krueger said. A list of medications that can cause photosensitivity is here; if you are taking any of these, Dr. Krueger said, “be extra cautious” and wear protective clothing and sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

Many lip products don’t have SPF, said Dr. Aegean Chan, medical director of California Dermatology Group in Santa Barbara, Calif. “But the lips are skin as well, so they’re just as susceptible to UV damage,” she said.

Use a lip balm of at least SPF 15 as your go-to lip balm, said Dr. Corey Hartman, assistant clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama School of Medicine. “I wouldn’t even think about it as sunscreen — I’d just think about it as what you use for your lips.”

Always carry it with you and try to apply every hour, he said, adding that if you’re wearing lipstick, wear SPF balm underneath, because most lipsticks do not provide adequate sun protection.

If you have a history of cold sores and you’re not wearing lip balm with SPF, UV light can trigger an outbreak, Dr. Chan said. “So a lot of people may notice they get flares of their cold sores after a sunny tropical vacation if they’re not wearing protection,” she said.

And if your lips do get burned, treat them with a cool compress and an over-the-counter steroid cream to ease the pain and irritation, Dr. Hartman said.

I’ve been there, and I would add: Lay off the hot sauce until they heal.

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