While the rosy sheen of a sunburn may be seen as a sign of a good time spent outdoors for some, it definitely is a telltale sign that you’ve spent a portion of that time unprotected from the sun.
A sunburn is annoying, sure, but fleeting. In a week’s time, you’ll long forget the bright red, tender and peeling skin that came along with it, ready to hit the beach, trail, lake, basketball court, playground, or whatever outdoor activity you have planned next. But what you often don’t see right away is the accelerated skin aging and risk of skin cancer that can go along with that sunburn.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma, the most dangerous of the three most common forms of skin cancer. That’s why it’s incredibly important to do everything you can to minimize sunburns, and consequently the damage done to your skin by the sun.
Here’s a helpful guide with everything you need to know to help fight sunburns, and the damage they cause, this summer.
What is skin cancer & what causes it?
To understand skin cancer, you first must understand what sun damage is and the role it plays in skin cancer. Sun damage, also sometimes called photoaging, refers to the damage the sun does when ultraviolet (UV) light hits unprotected skin. This sun damage causes DNA changes at a cellular level.
Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, the outermost skin layer, caused by this unrepaired DNA damage which then triggers mutations. These mutations lead the skin cells to multiply rapidly and form malignant tumors.
The main types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), melanoma and Merkel cell carcinoma (MCC).
More people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined. However, the good news is that if skin cancer is caught early, it can be treated with little or no scarring and high odds of eliminating it entirely. In fact, even though melanoma is the most dangerous skin cancer, when detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99%, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Who needs to wear sunscreen and what should I use?
In short: everyone needs to wear sunscreen; yes, even if you “never burn,” or you have a darker skin tone. That’s because, while sunscreen will help prevent sunburn, that’s not its only job. The purpose of sunscreen is to help protect your skin from sun damage, whether you can see it, in the form of sunburn, or not.
Good sun protection is important even on cloudy or cool days, and whether you’re sitting by a window, walking to and from your car, or at the beach. Even small blips of sun exposure can add up. That’s why you tend to find sun damage on the left side of your face more often than the right — this is the side in which the sun is hitting you most often when you’re driving a car. In a study published in JAMA Ophthalmology, side windows in cars on average only blocked 71% of UV rays, with the lowest being as little as 44%. For context, scientists found that front windshields blocked an average of 96% of UV rays, comparable to an SPF of 30.
That leads us to the question of what kind of sunscreen you should use. There are two types of sunscreen on the market: mineral or physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreen uses minerals to form a protective layer over your skin that blocks and reflects UV rays, while chemical sunscreens absorb into your skin and then absorb UV rays which then get converted into heat that releases from your body.
While dermatologists recommend using an SPF of at least 30 and looking for a sunscreen with broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection, which type of sunscreen you use is purely up to personal preference.
“The best sunscreen for you is a sunscreen you’re going to actually want to wear over and over again,” says Natalia Palacio, M.D., an internist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Dallas and Texas Health Adult Care, a Texas Health Physicians Group practice. “There are many options out there and one of them will likely feel better on your skin than the others, so you just have to try until you find one you like. I personally like Elta MD sunscreen or Neutrogena Ultra Sheer.”
To help guide you a bit more, The Environmental Working Group releases an annual guide to sunscreen use, with lists of its recommended sunscreens, including options for kids, mineral and nonmineral varieties, and moisturizers and lip balms with SPF.
And if you think you’re covered because your cosmetics have SPF in them — think again. Many cosmetics include SPF levels below the recommended 30, but even if a cosmetic did provide a higher SPF level, the amount you’d need to apply for adequate protection most likely far exceeds how much makeup you might actually want to put on your face. That’s why it’s always best to apply an actual sunscreen before you start your makeup, then anything you apply on top is just an added bonus.
How to apply sunscreen
Just because you slap some sunscreen on doesn’t always mean you’re protected to the full extent. Unlike applying moisturizer, a thin coat will most likely not do the trick.
To adequately cover your body, you should use about an ounce — or one shot glassful — of sunscreen. For your face and neck, about half a teaspoon should be enough, or two to three finger’s length of sunscreen.
Opt for lotions over stick or spray products, so you can ensure you’re getting an adequate, even layer of protection. And remember, you need to protect any skin the sun can reach, such as your ears, scalp, neck and neck.
Apply sunscreen to dry skin at least 15 minutes prior to heading outside and reapply every 90 minutes, or immediately after swimming or sweating. Reapplication is also important. Unfortunately putting sunscreen on just once at the very beginning of your day doesn’t provide enough protection to last the entire day. While including sunscreen in your morning routine is definitely grounds for a big thumbs-up, you should also bring it along with you or keep it in a drawer at your desk because it’s recommended to reapply sunscreen around every hour to 80 minutes, especially if you have a desk by a window or spend a lot of time outside.
If you wear makeup, though, you don’t have to take all of your makeup off and start over every hour. Instead, look for a powder-based sunscreen in either translucent or a shade that matches your skin tone for touchups throughout the day that works double duty as another layer of protection and combating any mid-day shine.
While sunscreens are helpful tools to protect against sun damage and skin cancer, they are not the only ones. When possible, it can also be helpful to wear a hat, cover up with clothing, stay in the shade as much as possible, and avoid hours when the sun is at its peak (from 10 a.m to 4 p.m.)
Palacio also recommends regularly checking your skin once a month for anything that may look new or suspicious. Get someone to help you with the particularly hard-to-see spots, such as your back and scalp.
Remember the ABCDE rule:
- A is for asymmetry – Meaning two sides of the spot don’t match
- B is for borders – Look for smooth, even borders around the spot
- C is for color- Look for an even, uniform color throughout the spot
- D is diameter – Anything bigger than 6mm (size of a pencil eraser) should get checked
- E is evolution – Look for any change in size, shape or color from last month
It is also recommended that you see your doctor annually for a skin checkup, similar to your annual exam, but your doctor is only looking at your skin for any suspicious spots and examining those spots with special tools. They can also take samples to be sent off for testing if anything concerns them. Fortunately, just like your annual, it’s covered by most insurance plans.
“A skin check is recommended yearly so you can see a dermatologist and get in the habit to go yearly as you would do with a regular physical exam,” Palacio says. “But don’t be afraid to talk to your primary care physician about your skin health and concerns too.”
If you’re uninsured, the American Academy of Dermatology also offers free skin checks in the spring through the SPOT me® Skin Cancer Screening Program.
This summer you can have your fun in the sun, and protect your skin too.