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Did you know that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States? In fact, there are more new cases of skin cancer each year than every other kind of cancer combined.
Most people take precautions to protect their skin when they know they’ll be outside for hours, like when they go to the beach or a ballgame. However, skin cancer is a result of your lifetime UV exposure, not just a handful of painful sunburns. A trip to the grocery store or those 15 minutes you spent watering your garden may not result in a sunburn, but unprotected skin will experience UV damage at the deep cellular level.
To kick off summer, we’re sharing our best skin protection strategies to reduce your risk of skin cancer. However, every single tip we’re sharing is applicable year-round, no matter your geography, age, or skin tone.
Factors that increase skin cancer risk
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing skin cancer. Having one or more of the following factors does not guarantee that you will develop skin cancer, nor does a lack of risk factors guarantee that you will not develop cancer. Some of the most common skin cancer risk factors are:
- Lifetime UV exposure
- Having a weakened immune system from other medical conditions
- Being prone to develop moles
- Having fair skin, light hair, and green or blue eyes
- BUT anyone can get skin cancer, no matter how light or dark their skin tone!
- Past incidences of skin cancer
- Having a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma
- Preexisting skin conditions that make you sensitive to the sun
SPF vs. UPF: Which protects from skin cancer better?
How do you figure out if a sunscreen has a high enough SPF? What does it mean when a shirt has a UPF rating? And which is a better measure of UV protection? SPF and UPF are rating systems that denote the amount of UV protection a sunscreen or clothing item offers. One isn’t necessarily better than the other; they just measure differently.
SPF means sun protection factor, which measures how long it takes for UV-exposed skin to burn. If your unprotected skin burns after 10 minutes in the sun, then using an SPF 15 sunscreen correctly will protect your skin from damage for 15 times longer than without. The caveat is that you need to use sunscreen correctly. Most people do not apply enough sunscreen to achieve its advertised SPF.
UPF is ultraviolet protection factor, which means how much of the sun’s UV rays (both A and B) can filter through the material. For example, an item rated UPF 50 only lets 1/50 of the UV rays through, blocking 98% of them. UPF items are great for when you’ll be outside for a long time because their ability to block UV rays does not reduce over time like sunscreen. Also, most people don’t care to put sunscreen on their scalp, so a UPF hat is a great alternative.
Used together, sunscreen and UPF clothing items are a great skin cancer prevention strategy because they protect you from a lot of UV damage.
How to apply sunscreen
Have you ever applied sunscreen and still gotten a sunburn? The chances are that you didn’t apply enough, or you waited too long to reapply. Next time you go outside, follow these helpful sunscreen tips:
- Use one full ounce – about the size of a shot glass – to cover the average-sized adult body. Those who are taller or larger will need even more than that for adequate protection!
- Use one teaspoon – about the size of a nickel – to cover your entire face.
- Don’t forget spots like your ears, the back of your neck, and the tops of your feet.
- Apply your sunscreen 10 – 15 minutes before you head out, so it has time to absorb and get to work.
- Choose water-resistant or sweat-proof formulas when you swim, play sports, or do sweaty yard work.
- Reapply every 2 hours, or more often if you’re swimming or sweating (refer to your bottle for specific timing instructions).
- Check the expiration date and replace your sunscreen if it’s outdated.
Protecting children from UV damage
Young skin doesn’t produce melanin to protect itself from UV damage as efficiently as adult skin, so it’s essential that parents and caregivers take extra care to protect children’s skin.
We recommend choosing a sunscreen with a high SPF and reapplying it diligently. If your child’s skin is sensitive to chemical sunscreen formulas, choose a mineral sunscreen instead. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends keeping infants under six months out of the sun entirely because their skin is too sensitive for even the gentlest sunscreen formulas. UPF clothing and shade are great additions to your child’s UV protection plan.
While spray and stick sunscreen formulas are convenient, we prefer lotion sunscreens. Manually rubbing in the SPF provides more uniform coverage than sprays and sticks, which means better protection from the sun. Don’t forget to show your babysitter where to find your child’s sunscreen, UPF hat, protective clothing, and sunglasses.
Use a combination of sun protection strategies
No single UV-blocking strategy can prevent all UV exposure, so it’s best to use a combination of methods. You don’t have to use every suggestion on our list, but choosing a few and implementing them into your daily life can drastically reduce your skin cancer risk.
- Choose a sunscreen that is broad-spectrum (protects from aging UVA rays and burning UVB rays), comfortable to wear, and has a formula suited to your activity (water or sweatproof).
- Wear sunscreen every single day, even when you’ll be inside.
- Did you know that windows don’t typically block UVA rays? That means that you can still get UV damage, even at the office!
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours, and more often if you’re swimming or sweating.
- Don’t forget to reapply sunscreen to the backs of your hands after washing them.
- Wear a chapstick with SPF to protect your lips.
- Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest.
- Use a weather app to monitor the UV index in your area before heading outside.
- Seek shade if you’re out during peak UV hours.
- Walk on the shady side of the street, pick the outdoor table that has an umbrella, and sit in the shade of a tree rather than directly under the sun.
- NEVER use a tanning bed.
- Did you know that using a tanning bed before age 35 increases your risk for developing melanoma by 75%?
- When you’re outside, wear protective clothing like UPF shirts and pants.
- Wear a broad-brimmed hat.
- Look for one with a brim that is three inches or more. Bonus: You’ll look très chic!
- Protect your eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses because you can get skin cancer in your eyes too!
- Perform a monthly skin cancer self-exam and see your dermatologist once a year for a check-up.
Skin cancer prevention is easy!
How many skin cancer prevention strategies should you use? That depends. If you can commit to using two strategies every day, then that’s the right number for you.
People with a higher skin cancer risk may want to take extra steps, but everyone, no matter their cancer risk or skin tone, should practice good skin safety because cancer does not discriminate. If you need assistance choosing the best UV-blocking strategies for your skin type and lifestyle, get in touch, and we’ll help you develop your ideal skin protection plan.
Center for Surgical Dermatology is Central Ohio’s leader in skin cancer surgery, but we’d rather help you prevent cancer than treat it! If you need assistance creating a skin protection plan or would like to schedule your yearly skin cancer check-up, contact us today.