By Katie Rosenbrock
It's no secret that we need to protect our skin from the sun. Whether you bronze beautifully or burn badly, the body's natural reaction to sunlight shows us that too much unprotected exposure is unhealthy for our skin.
Some startling statistics also help solidify this fact. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, more than 3.5 million nonmelanoma skin cancers in more than 2 million people are diagnosed in the U.S. each year.
Research also suggests that one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their life and that by 2015 about one in 50 Americans will be diagnosed with melanoma, which according to the Skin Cancer Foundation is the most dangerous form of skin cancer and is most commonly caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun or tanning beds.
"UV exposure causes free radicals to form in your skin and they damage your skin cell's DNA," says Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a board-certified dermatologist and the President and CEO of Advanced Skin Care and Dermatology Physicians. "This leads to skin cancer. It also leads to a series of events in the skin that cause a cycle of skin collagen breakdown and skin thinning."
Bailey says the damage caused by this series of events can also lead to wrinkles, sun freckles, age spots and blotchy pigmentation with broken capillaries.
The AAD believes that skin cancer would be much less prevalent if more of us were aware of the signs and symptoms, knew how to check for them and actually took the time to do so. However, perhaps another part of the problem is that we're uninformed about how to properly protect ourselves.
According to the three skincare experts that we consulted, there are quite a few misconceptions about what needs to be done in order to adequately protect your skin from the sun. One of the most common mistakes: not using sunscreen every day, even when it’s not sunny.
Dr. Susan Huang, a board-certified dermatologist at the Harvard teaching hospital Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and an instructor of Harvard Medical School says that it’s a good idea to use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 daily.
"I tell patients that the best sunscreen is the one they’ll use regularly," says Dr. Jeffery Benabio, a board-certified dermatologist and the Physician Director of Healthcare Transformation at Kaiser Permanente. “So make sure you like the feel and scent of it."
No one likes dealing with sunburn, no wants to be another statistic and most of all, no one wants to deal with skin cancer. Seaside vacations and sunny summer barbeques are some of the best things about summer, but the opportunity for more time spent outside also means a huge increase in prolonged exposure to intense sunlight.
Protecting yourself isn’t all that difficult, but it does require more than one quick application before you head out the door, which is why we've rounded up this list of 7 need-to-know sunscreen tips that will help keep your skin safe from the sun this summer and all year long.
Myth: Products with SPFs above 30 provide better protection: Earlier we mentioned that products with an SPF of 30 will protect against 97 percent of UVB rays. "After that the percent of UVB rays blocked doesn’t go up very much as the SPF numbers go up," Bailey explains. (e.g. SPF 50 will block 98 percent of UVB rays and SPF 70 98.5 percent.) "If you follow the recommended 1 ounce of sunscreen application for the average sized adult body surface in a swim suit, then at SPF 30 you are equally protected by either product," says Bailey. "What's more important is to choose a sunscreen that is labeled 'broad-spectrum,' meaning that it protects against both UVB and UVA rays," Benabio adds.
Myth: I can use any type of sunscreen: "It's very important to match the right sunscreen to your skin type so that you love your product and wear it every day,” says Bailey. “I always recommend mineral zinc oxide based products because of the way zinc works and because it is one of only two FDA approved broad spectrum ingredients to block UV-A1 rays, which are the most intense and are out all day, all year and penetrate the skin most deeply.” Bailey’s website provides an excellent in-depth guide that can help you choose the right sunscreen for your skin type and individual needs. You can also refer to her “quick pick” guide based on the most common skin types and questions that she receives.
Myth: Sunscreen is all I need: Sunscreen can't block every single type of light ray emitted by the sun. "Even zinc oxide lets the very end of the UV-A1 rays through," says Bailey. "It's why you need to wear a full brimmed hat and sun protective clothing when possible for the best protection."
Myth: Tanning beds are safe if I use sunscreen: "Tanning beds are never safe, with or without sunscreen," says Benabio. "Tanned skin is damaged skin. Simply put, there is no such thing as a ‘safe tan.'" Bailey adds, "Tanning beds emit mostly UV-A1 which causes skin cancer and is the most aging UV ray for the skin. Sunscreens don't block this ray well, and if they did you wouldn't get a tan from a tanning bed." She explains that it's impossible to have a tan without accruing damage to your DNA (the type of damage that causes cancer) and without causing future wrinkles.
Myth: Chemicals in sunscreen are more dangerous than using sunscreen for skin protection: Bailey made note of two ingredients that buyers should beware when purchasing sunscreen: avobenzone and oxybenzone. "Avobenzone products are not stable. They break down once formulated and they break down when they neutralize UV rays on your skin,” she says. “Oxybenzone products are absorbed through your skin and the chemical has been demonstrated to be a hormone disruptor.” Benabio added that there is also some controversy concerning alpha hydroxy acids (AHA’s) in sunscreens. "Consumers who want to be extra cautious might avoid those sunscreens," he says. However, aside from avoiding these, all of our experts emphasized the fact that not using sunscreen is far more dangerous than exposure to its ingredients.
Myth: If my sunscreen is waterproof, I won't need to reapply: Every skincare expert that we talked to said it's important to understand that there's no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. "There is 'water-resistant' sunscreen, but this will also come off your skin after heavy sweating, or a dip in the ocean or pool," says Huang. In fact, Bailey points out that the FDA recently prohibited use of the term "waterproof” because it causes people to falsely believe sunscreen can't come off. "If you buy a water-resistant sunscreen, it will say that it's effective for either 40 minutes or 80 minutes. That will tell you how long your skin can be wet or sweaty before you need to reapply," says Benabio.
Myth: I only need a little bit of sunscreen: Huang, Benabio and Bailey all agree; another one of the most common mistakes that people make with sunscreen is not using enough of it. "Most adults need about 1 ounce (the size of a shot glass) to fully cover their bodies," says Benabio. "Many sunscreens come in bottles of 3 to 6 ounces, so, that’s 3 to 6 applications. If you’re using the same bottle of sunscreen in July that you opened in May, you're not using enough." All three doctors also noted that it’s important not to neglect often missed body parts like the ears, neck, lips, hands and feet.