Summer is coming, and with it lots of time in the sun for most folks. While we all welcome the long warm days of summer, the sun is not a friend to our skin. Sun exposure is a major cause of skin damage and skin cancer. According to the Mayo Clinic, “Skin cancer occurs when errors (mutations) occur in the DNA of skin cells. The mutations cause the cells to grow out of control and form a mass of cancer cells.” And, “Much of the damage to DNA in skin cells results from ultraviolet (UV) radiation found in sunlight.”
You may already be convinced that you need to use sunscreen whenever you’re out in the sun, but you may not be using sunscreen correctly, according to dermatologist Dennis Gross writing in The Observer.
It turns out that what we don’t know can hurt us when it comes to sun exposure, sunscreen and skin care. Here are four tips to avoid common mistakes people make with sunscreen that result in increased skin damage and cancer risk.
- Use sunscreen every day. Sure, this seems obvious, but Dr. Gross insists that you must wear sunscreen anytime you are exposed to sunlight, even if it’s only a few minutes at a time during the day. Time in the car (when it is sunny) counts as sun exposure. Walking from the parking lot to the store counts too. It all adds up. Spending just five minutes in the sun, six times per day over the course of the summer has the same effect on your skin as spending two entire days of baking in the sun, Gross says.
- Applying sunscreen before you go outside. Ever watch people put on sunscreen after then sit down at the beach? Don’t do it! If you wait until you’re at the beach or park before you put sunscreen on, you’re doing unnecessary damage to your skin. Dr. Gross says it takes 15-20 minutes for sunscreen to settle and become active after it is applied. That means you’re exposed to UV rays 15-20 minutes more than you need to be.
- Covering everything. People often miss applying sunscreen near the hairline, on the backs of their hands, and on their lips. Ears and scalp are also often left vulnerable–and these are areas that tend to burn easily. Many people fail to put sunscreen on their ears and neck, or the top of the forehead for fear of messing up their hair. “Due to this neglect, the top of the forehead is where I see an epidemic of pre-cancers, skin cancers and sunspots in my practice,” Dr. Gross says. Come on, people! Don’t let vanity get the best of you.
- Seek a higher SPF. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends a minimum of Skin Protection Factor (SPF) 30. “Dermatologists recommend using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun’s UVB rays. Higher-number SPFs block slightly more of the sun’s UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun’s UVB rays.” This means that if your moisturizer or face cream has an SPF rating lower than that, you’re likely not getting enough protection.
On his website, Dr. Gross recommends these additional sun protection techniques.
- Wear wide sunglasses to shield the eye area from the sun’s damaging UVA and UVB rays.
- If your skin is pink or freckles are appearing, you’ve haven’t used enough sunscreen or you haven’t reapplied it often enough.
- Apply a shot glass amount of sunscreen (about one ounce) to cover your face and body.
What if you’re out in the sun too long? Seek shade the minute you see any pinkness or signs of burning. It is important to reduce the inflammation and thermal injury caused by sun damage. If you do burn, take ibuprofen or another over-the-counter anti-inflammatory. Applying aloe can also help cool the skin tissue and reduce damage. Tip: If you know you’ll be out in the sun for a long period time, wear a wide-brimmed hat (think sombrero!) that provides shade over your neck and face.
In addition to causing dangerous skin cancers (if that doesn’t make you seek protection), sun exposure causes the skin to age at an accelerated rate. That means that the more time you spend in the sun without protection, the faster your skin will age. No one wants more wrinkles! So make sure you avoid these sunscreen mistakes.