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Summer Skin: Then and Now

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 Popular descriptions of modern summer skin usually include terms such as "golden" or "sun-kissed." But those phrases would most likely make your great-grandmother shudder. Former generations wouldn't dare venture outside without being covered head to toe, with a wide-brimmed hat to top it all off.

"The way we look at summer skin care has evolved greatly," says Erika Summers, MD, a University of Utah dermatologist. "Earlier generations were outside a great deal. This increased exposure often resulted in significant, painful, and occasionally disfiguring sunburns that left them highly motivated to stay shielded from the sun."

At the turn of the 20th century, porcelain skin was seen as a sign of wealth and stature. However, once the wealthy started taking yacht trips and coming back from the Hamptons with a glow, tanned skin became the new beauty standard.

The 1950s to Today

The first major summer skin care company, Coppertone, debuted in the 1950s with a suntan lotion advertised as a way to achieve a "faster, deeper tan." The company boasted products that could tan you while also protecting you from the sun.

"They claimed the product let in only the UV rays that promoted tanning and kept out the ones that burned you, which we now know is inaccurate," Summers says. "Simply put, all freckling and tanned skin is damaged skin."

In the 1960s, the first instance of SPF (sun protection factor) appeared. However, the amount added to suntan lotions was incredibly low—around 2-4 SPF. And the additives were often thick, oily, and did not effectively rub into the skin.

Between the 1970s and 1980s, tanning oils increased in popularity. Meanwhile, researchers were making progress in figuring out the effects of UV rays and creating specialty sunscreens featuring sweat and water protection.

Despite innovations in sunscreens during this time, most media advertised that the best way to take care of your skin during the summer was with sunbathing.

"Tanning products claimed that sun would make your skin look younger and fresher, which we now know is false," Summers says. "Most of my patients who applied iodine or baby oil to tan have more skin cancers, wrinkles and sunspots than my patients who did not. The people who practiced good sun protection back then actually have the more youthful skin now."

During the 1990s, UVA blockers were added to sunscreens. And spray and gel sunscreens became more common. SPF also started to be featured in everyday products and levels of protection in sunscreen increased. By 2009, only 6 percent of sunscreens had SPF levels below five.

These days, the FDA regulates sunscreen labels to make them as easy to understand as possible for consumers. Products no longer can be called "sunblock" or "waterproof" and must clearly state SPF level and whether or not they are "broad-spectrum."

Covering Up

Staying covered up while out in the sun still is the most important way to prevent skin cancer, dermatologists say.

In the early 1900s, men exposed 23 percent of their skin while swimming; women uncovered just 18 percent to the sun. But by the 1960s, women's skin exposure rose to 80 percent with the introduction of the bikini. By the end of the 20th century, up to 92 percent of a woman's body was exposed to the sun in a bathing suit.

At the same time, melanoma rates have swelled, climbing almost 2 percent each year since 2000. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that most Americans still don't use sunscreen regularly, with only 14 percent of men and 30 percent of women reporting regularly using sunscreen on both their face and other exposed skin.

Summers stresses staying covered up and out of the sun as the most effective way to avoid skin cancer and sun damage. When not possible, individuals should wear hats and sun-protective clothing, and apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen 365 days a year that is active against harmful UVA and UVB rays.

"If you are insistent on looking tan, use a self-tanning product that also has an included sunscreen with SPF 30 or above," she adds. "It is a myth that the self tanner alone provides adequate protection from the sun."

For more information: Follow the American Academy of Dermatology's tips for effective sunscreen use.