We are nearing the beginning of the summer, and many of you like to go the beach or simply lay around your yards in the sun. If so, I have some words of caution for you.

In years past, it was believed to be both healthy and desirable to get a tan during the summer. Now doctors and scientists warn against it. Prolonged exposure to the sun can cause problems including skin cancer and premature aging. So instead of slathering on the suntan lotion, you may want to apply sunscreen or sunblock.

Dr. Patricia Farris, a dermatologist in private practice in Metairie, has some words of advice on sunscreens and skin protection. She notes that sunscreens are 'constantly evolving, with new ingredients coming onto the market each year.' Ultraviolet rays from the sun are what most directly impact the skin. In most cases in which the skin is unprotected or less than adequately protected, these rays may redden the skin and can cause painful blistering.

'To protect your skin from the sun, you can use either a sunscreen or sunblock,' says Farris. Sunscreens contain ingredients that absorb the rays of the sun. Most traditional sunscreens prevent sunburn by absorbing ultraviolet-B (UVB) but do little to protect against ultraviolet-A (UVA), Farris notes. The best types of sunscreens to use, she says, are those labeled 'broad spectrum.' They have ingredients that absorb both UVA and UVB rays, Farris explains.

'It's important to block UVA rays because we know that they cause skin cancer and wrinkling,' Farris adds. The active chemical ingredient most effective at absorbing UVA rays is called Parsol 1789. Check labels before you buy a product to make sure this ingredient is included.

Sunblocks contain the physical blockers titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. 'They do a very good job of blocking both UVA and UVB,' Farris says. 'Sunblocks tend to be a little opaque in appearance, but the newer micronized forms are more cosmetically acceptable. Sunblocks are great for athletes like golfers and tennis players as they are less likely to sweat off.

'Never use anything with a sun protection factor (SPF) less than 15,' Farris advises. The SPF refers to how well a product blocks UVB; there is currently no numbering system for UVA protection. 'The higher the SPF the better, but it's important to understand that doubling the SPF doesn't necessarily double the sun protection.' Farris says that an SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93 percent of the UVB rays, while an SPF 30 product blocks 97 percent.

'Sunscreens and sunblocks are not designed to help you get tanned,' Farris says. 'As dermatologists, we don't like to see patients get tanned. Tanning is sort of a terminal form of sun damage. If you still like that bronzed look, get a self tanner. They work great and won't damage your skin.'

Despite the warnings and dangers, many people still venture into the sun with inadequate protection -- or none at all. In the most extreme of these cases, medical treatment may be necessary. For cases of minor sunburn in which there is reddening but no blistering, Farris suggests anti-inflammatories such as aspirin or ibuprofen. Applying a cortisone cream directly to the skin will soothe the burn; aloe vera, she adds, is not as effective as these other treatments. If you suffer blistering or a severe sunburn, consult your dermatologist. Prescription medications and even a cortisone injection may be required to prevent scarring.

As far as the best times to be out in the sun, 'We always tell people don't go out there between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Those are the peak hours when the sun is the worst,' Farris says. She suggests planning sports activities early in the morning, late in the afternoon or in the evening, when it's cooler. In a climate as hot as New Orleans, it may be best to wait until after 5 p.m., she says. 'Scheduling your activities is almost as important as putting your sunscreen on.' Farris also advises parents of young children to monitor youngsters' outdoor activities and protect them from prolonged contact with the sun without adequate protection. All of which I recommend, as well. Follow these words of advice and you should be all right. Have fun in the sun this summer and stay safe and healthy.

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