Sunscreen 411: Tips on protecting your skin from the sun
Sunscreen – we know it’s essential in reducing the risk of skin cancer, but we skimp on it, forget to reapply it or forgo it altogether before hitting the outdoors. That helps explains our skin cancer numbers.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with more than 3.5 million people diagnosed with basal and squamous cell skin cancer each year. Melanoma, the most deadly type of skin cancer, accounts for more than 76,000 cases of skin cancer.
With summer just around the corner – and an increased likelihood of excessive sun exposure – now’s the perfect time to brush up on sun safety.
City of Hope surgical oncologist Vijay Trisal, M.D., who helps formulate melanoma treatment guidelines both nationally and internationally, shares some sunscreen tips to help you get the best protection against the sun.
1. Read the label
First, check the ingredients listed on the product's label. They should be effective – and safe.
“People need to look for a sunscreen that contains at least one of the following: ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide, sulisobenzone or zinc oxide,” Trisal said. “Such ingredients provide what’s known as broad-spectrum protection, reducing damage from both UVA and UVB rays.”
Sometimes, however, evaluating the ingredients can be easier said than done.
“Ingredients vary widely in products,” Trisal has said. Most sunscreens contain a litany of unfamiliar chemicals or compounds, and some may even contain ingredients that can be potentially dangerous.
Retinyl palmitate, for example, which is derived from vitamin A, is found in many products, but has been linked to an increased risk of skin cancer.
“There has been a lot of debate about retinyl palmitate,” said Trisal. “We know a lot of people use it to diminish pimples, but there is a higher risk of developing skin cancer when using it.”
2. Understand the meaning of SPF
When it comes to a sunscreen’s sun protection factor, better known as SPF, consumers need to understand how the ratings work.
“The SPF factor rates how effective the sunscreen is in preventing sunburn caused by UVB rays,” Trisal has said. “If you'd normally burn in 10 minutes, SPF 15 multiplies that by a factor of 15, meaning you could go 150 minutes before burning.”
It may seem like the higher the SPF rating the better, but that’s not necessarily true, said Trisal. While higher SPF numbers do mean more protection, the increase isn’t substantial.
For example, according to the American Cancer Society:
SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93 percent of UVB rays.
SPF 30 sunscreens filter about 97 percent.
SPF 50 filters about 98 percent.
And SPF 100 filters about 99 percent.
“For the vast majority of people, SPF 15 is fine,” Trisal has noted. “People who have very fair skin, a family history of skin cancer or conditions like lupus that increase sensitivity to sunlight should consider SPF 30 or higher.”
And of course, if you’re planning to be out in the sun for extended periods of time, err on the side of caution and go with a higher SPF.
To get the most out of sunscreen, apply generously at least every three to four hours, says Trisal. The American Cancer Society suggests using about 1 ounce (or about a palmful) of sunscreen to cover arms, legs, neck and face.
Do this 15 to 30 minutes before you bare your skin.
“Sunscreens must be absorbed into the skin to be effective via a chemical reaction with the UV rays,” Trisal has said.
3. Know the UV index
When getting ready to head outdoors for the day, check the UV index to assess the strength of the UV radiation. The higher the number, the easier it is to sunburn. UV rays tend to be the strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
“Make sure to look at the UV index, not just the temperature when going outside,” said Trisal. “If it’s more than six, I wouldn’t recommend going outside. Even the shade can penetrate UV radiation from the sun at that level.”
The UV index can be found online, through apps on your Smartphone and on some news outlets.
While all sunscreens protect against UVB rays, which are the main cause of sunburns, not all sunscreens protect against UVA rays, which lead to premature skin aging and wrinkling. To get protection for both types of UV rays, use a broad spectrum sunscreen. These types of sunscreens are the only products that can claim to protect against skin cancer and early skin aging.
4. Slip, slop, slap, seek and slide!
Trisal sums up sun safety with five words: Slip, Slop, Slap, Seek and Slide!
“Slip on a shirt
Slop on sunscreen
Slap on a broad-brimmed hat
Slide on a pair of sun glasses”
No sunscreen will protect you completely, so it’s important to take as much precaution as possible to lower the risk of skin cancer and other sun-induced damage.
Learn more about skin cancer treatment at City of Hope.