By Kathy Shield
It’s almost the end of summer. But not quite. There’s still plenty of time left to be outside – and plenty of opportunities to get sunburned if you’re not careful. Sun-damaged skin increases your risk of skin cancer down the road.
Rates of melanoma have been climbing for the last 30 years. KQED Forum recently called together three experts on sun damage and skin cancer, and we’ve distilled their recommendations here so you can protect yourself.
1. When Buying Sunscreen, The Right SPF is Everything
You’ve seen all those SPF number: 15, 50, 100. The takeaway here is that you should buy a product with an SPF between 15 and 50.
The Centers for Disease Control says SPF 15 is a minimum. SPF or “sun protection factor” refers to protection from UVB rays. Those are the ones that burn your skin. The Environmental Working Group advises that anything over 50 is not only worthless. (50 blocks 98 percent of the UV rays; 100 blocks 100 percent) but could also be dangerous. That’s because products may do little to protect you from UVA rays, which are the ones that damage skin. A high SPF may well prevent you from burning — but then you’re out in the sun longer and cause other damage to your skin.
Save your money and skip the “waterproof” types. Sonya Lunder with the Environmental Working Group told Forum’s audience that those claims are overblown. Lunder also recommended cream products over sprays because with sprays “the risk is too great (you’ll) be missing patches of your skin.”
Once you’ve got the right type, make sure you reapply frequently and all day long. Lunder recommends applying two layers before leaving the house to give the sunscreen time to soak in. Then, re-apply every 90 minutes to two hours, more often if you’re sweating or swimming.
If you’re concerned about the chemicals in the sunscreen, Stanford dermatologist Susan Swetter says not to worry. “The FDA is not questioning the safety of any of the ingredients in marketed sunscreens,” she said. “Many of the safety concerns that have been raised are actually based on laboratory investigations … and really don’t have a real-life application in humans.” But if you’re still concerned, she recommended products with bemotrizinol or bisoctrizole.
2. Wear Protective Clothing
All three experts agreed that you shouldn’t rely just on sunscreen. “Sunscreen is one tool, but only one tool, in preventing sunburn,” Lunder said. Long sleeves and long pants will help protect your skin, although you should still wear sunscreen underneath the clothes.
UV-blocking clothing can be expensive, but Swetter thinks it is worth it. “You don’t need to wear sunscreen underneath sun protective clothing,” she says. (It) does a very good job.”
If you have small children, consider long sleeve swim shirts if you’re going to the beach or a pool.
3. Avoid the Midday Sun — and Its Manmade Cousins
Tina Clarke with the Cancer Prevention Institute of California said her top recommendation is to stay out of the harsh sun altogether. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 am and 4 pm, so she suggests you limit the time spent in the sun during these hours.
And skip the tanning salon, too. The World Health Organization has classified tanning beds as a Class 1 carcinogen, the highest cancer risk category.
Clarke also explained that studies show “intermittent intense exposure seems to be most associated with risk [for melanoma].”
4. Use UV-Blocking Glass – eyewear, car windows
If you drive a lot, make sure you have tinted glass in your car. Even better, says Swetter, is laminated glass. Either type limits the amount of UV rays that hit your skin. And if you live at altitude, these considerations are even more important, because UVB rays increase 4-10 percent for every 1000 feet of elevation.
For eyeglasses, the guests all said most will stop some UV rays, but tinted glasses are always better. They recommend wearing sunglasses while outside as often as possible.
5. Get Checked
Melanoma can be a fast-growing cancer, so don’t delay if you see something unusual. “It you notice something on your skin that is changing differently than the rest,” Swetter says, “it is important to get that looked at early.” She says melanoma is also prevalent in people of color. “It should not be labeled as a disease of only fair-skinned individuals,” she said. There has been a 20 percent increase in melanoma among Hispanics over the last 20 years. Get your doctor to check for melanomas, regardless of your skin color or your primary reason for visiting.