57 percent of Americans make a dangerous summer mistake that leaves them susceptible to skin cancer: They use the wrong sunscreen, a study presented at the 2012 American Academy of Dermatology Annual Meeting found. The researchers polled 1,000 adults in New York and Miami, and found that the majority of them used products with too low a SPF to provide effective protection.
Recent research shows an alarmingly high rate of sun safety blunders that can harm your health, including using sunscreen with ingredients that may actually raise skin cancer risk, neglecting to protect the lips and hands, and forgoing sunglasses, which boosts cataract risk. And before you go to the tanning salon for a head start on the beach season, consider this: Cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have risen eightfold in women under 40 and quadrupled in young men since 1970, a new Mayo Clinic study reports.
What we don’t know about sun safety can burn us, says Karthik Krishnamurthy, DO, chief dermatology consultant for the Montefiore Einstein Center for Cancer Care's Melanoma/Sarcoma Program in New York, and one of the authors of the sunscreen survey mentioned above. And the FDA’s controversial decision to postpone new sunscreen labeling requirements until December has compounded the confusion. Here’s an expert guide to skin cancer prevention.
To get the amount of SFP you see on the sunscreen label, you have to apply a thick, visible coat. Most of us apply only one-fourth to one-half the correct amount, which can turn SPF 30 into the equivalent of SPF 10. “If you can’t see sunscreen on your skin, you’re not using enough,” says Dr. Krishnamurthy.
Another common mistake is not applying enough sunscreen to the backs of the hands, chest, and neck, which not only raises risk for getting skin cancer in these areas, but also makes you look older. Up to 90 percent of visible signs of aging, such as wrinkles and brown “age spots” are linked to sun damage. And don’t skip your lips: Skin cancers on the lower lip, in particular, tend to be more aggressive and likely to spread.
Big numbers are mostly hype and create a false sense of security, since no sunscreen offers 100 percent protection. Using SPF 30 provides 97 percent protection, compared to 90 percent with SPF 15, says Dr. Krishnamurthy. Under the FDA’s new rules, the highest number that will be allowed is 50+; these products offer about 98 percent protect and typically cost a lot more.
Select broad-spectrum products that protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Apply the sunscreen 30 minutes before leaving your house, so it’s absorbed before you’re out in the rays, then reapply every 2 hours as well as after swimming, working up a heavy sweat, or washing your hands.
“It’s easier to take vitamin D as a supplement, or get it in your diet, than to need chemotherapy for skin cancer because you’ve been baking in the sun,” says Dr. Krishnamurthy. Each year, more than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed, many of which could be prevented with the right sun protection. Even a little exposure to the sun’s damaging rays causes cell damage.
One third of skin cancers occur above the neck, so by wearing a hat, you can literally save face. Experts estimate that each inch of brim reduces skin cancer risk by about 10 percent. Tightly woven clothing, such as blue jeans, also provides excellent protection, while a white T-shirt only offers a UVF (ultraviolet protection factor) of about 5, or 3 when wet.
A recent study reported that 66 percent of adults don’t wear sunglasses when they’re at the beach, pool, or parks on sunny days. That’s a very dangerous mistake: Wearing sunglasses helps prevent cataracts, which affect about 20 million Americans over age 40. Look for wraparound sunglasses with lenses labeled “100 percent UV protection.”
Only 25 percent of 800 tested sunscreens provide safely protect the skin without potentially hazardous ingredients, according to a shocking new report from the Environmental Working Group.
Another 25 percent of sunscreens—including kids’ products--contain a chemical that may actually raise cancer risk when used on sun-exposed skin: retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A, reports EWG. The good news is that 94 brands, including CVS, Walgreens, Aveeno and Banana Boat, now offer very safe, mineral-only sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
I dedicate this post to the memory of my father, Oscar Collier, who died on July 3, 1998 from melanoma skin cancer that had spread to his lungs, liver and brain. The culprit was unprotected sun exposure during his youth, before effective sunscreens were developed.
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