Summer Skin Cancer Prevention

Every time you choose not to wear sunscreen, whether you are outside on a sunny day, a cloudy day, or even inside near a window, you put yourself at risk for a weakened immune system, premature skin aging, eye damage (including cataracts), and a multitude of diseases and cancers. But before we dive into the range of skin-protecting products and prevention tips, we need to get a few facts straight.

What’s the difference between UVA and UVB?

The wavelength of radiation; UVA is long-wave, and UVB is short-wave. For many years, scientists were primarily concerned with UVA rays because they are absorbed deeper into the skin, compared to their shortwave counterpart. However, scientists did not believe UVA caused damage to the outermost layer of skin (the epidermis) where most skin cancers occur.

According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, “UVA rays account for up to 95% of the UV radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Although they are less intense than UVB, UVA rays are 30 to 50 times more prevalent. They are present during all daylight hours throughout the year, and can penetrate clouds and glass,” which means that you need to make the choice to protect your skin every day, regardless of weather or location. Otherwise, you could be damaging your skin cells, which leads to the development of skin cancers.

The intensity of UVB rays fluctuate due to seasonal changes, location, and time of day. Typically in the US, UVB is the strongest between 10 AM and 4 PM, from April to October. This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook early in the morning or later in the evening; the Skin Cancer Foundation remarks that “UVB rays can damage your skin year-round, especially at high altitudes and on reflective surfaces such as snow or ice, which bounce back up to 80% of the rays so that they hit the skin twice.” While UVA is responsible for wrinkles and photoaging, UVB is what causes skin to burn.

Know your SPF

SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, indicates the amount of time it would take for UVB rays to redden skin when using a sunscreen, compared to how long it would take without sunscreen. Therefore, SPF 15 means that it will take 15 times longer for the skin to redden than it would without the product. Understanding the amount of protection you are getting from your SPF is crucial— research shows that, “An SPF 15 sunscreen screens 93% of the sun's UVB rays; SPF 30 protects against 97%; and SPF 50, 98%. The Skin Cancer Foundation maintains that SPFs of 15 or higher are necessary for adequate protection” (Skin Cancer Foundation).

What kind of sunscreen should I use?

1. Check the Label for “Broad Spectrum” to ensure that your skin will be protected from both UVA and UVB rays.

2. If you spend a lot of time outdoors, consider buying a water-resistant sunscreen to keep your skin protected at the beach, the pool, or when you’re working up a sweat. Be warned: these sunscreens are not for everyday wear, especially on your face because they do not apply well under or over makeup.

3. For everyday use, look for a product that has an SPF of at least 15. Typically oil-free, non-comedogenic moisturizers will not make you break out. Tinted moisturizers are also great in the summer because they provide both light coverage and skin protection.

4. Look for at least three active ingredients such as “PABA derivatives, salicylates, and/or cinnamates (octylmethoxycinnamate and cinoxate) for UVB absorption; benzophenones (such as oxybenzone and sulisobenzone) for shorter-wavelength UVA protection; and avobenzone, ecamsule (MexorylTM), titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide for the remaining UVA spectrum.”

5. Look for the SCF’s Seal of Recommendation—it guarantees that you are buying a safe and effective product.

Application

Once you’ve found the right product, remember to apply it 30 minutes before sun exposure so that the ingredients bind to the skin. Reapplication is just as important as initial application, so don’t forget to lather up after 2 hours of wear.

Prevention Tips:

Stay away from the tanning beds. Some salons try to convince clients that their beds are “safe” because they only emit UVA rays (which are still dangerous). What they don’t tell you is that the lamps used inside tanning beds emit 12 times the amount of UVA than the sun. According to recent research acquired by the Skin Cancer foundation, “First exposure to tanning beds in youth increases melanoma risk by 75%.” Please don’t pay for skin cancer. If you’d like to look bronzed before a big event, try a gradual self-tanner or look into getting a spray tan. Check out this guide from Women’s Health to pick the perfect self-tanner.

Dress to protect. You can actually buy clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), in addition to buying laundry additives that can be washed into clothing.

If you need an excuse to splurge on a broad brimmed hat that compliments your new bikini or your favorite romper, you now have one. Hats are great because they not only shield your face, neck, ears, and shoulders from the sun, but also protect one of the most neglected areas of skin on your body: your scalp.

If you choose to ditch the hat, opt for a spray with SPF to protect your scalp and hair from color fadeout. This one from Aveda is fortified with Vitamin E, green tea, and essential oils.

Finally, these handy white bracelets turn orange when UV rays are most potent, to serve as a reminder to re-apply or find some shade. 

Be on the lookout for any new spots or moles that appear throughout the year.

Visit your doctor or dermatologist annually to do a full-body scan. If you notice any new moles that appear abnormal (see chart above), consulting a dermatologist could be the difference between having a mole removed and having melanoma.