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Skin Cancer Is On The Rise. Are You Using Sunscreen Correctly?

The heat is on, and you’re ready to hit the beach, head to the park, or take a hike. You don’t want to have to reapply, so you put on SPF 30 rather than your typical SPF 8. You take a dip in the waves, you sweat, and you stay out in the sun for hours.

And you pay for it.

A lot of sun damage comes from confusion, misleading labels, and assumptions. Does sunscreen protect you from all UV rays? What are the best SPFs? What does SPF even mean? Let’s look at the facts about how sunscreen can help protect you from sunburn, premature aging, and skin cancer.

You need sunscreen with both UVA and UVB protection

UVB rays cause sunburn, and UVA rays cause premature aging. Both types of radiation contribute to skin cancer. If your sunscreen isn’t labeled with multi-spectrum, broad spectrum, or UVA/UVB, it only protects against UVB rays.

UV radiation can also impair the skin’s immune system, and can set in even before you see sunburn. That’s because exposure to the sun alters the function of the cells that respond to antigens, and this in turn can suppress the immune system.

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Waterproof and Sweat-Proof Sunblocks Don’t Exist Anymore

“Sunblock,” “waterproof,” and “sweat-proof” are now defunct terms, because they were so misleading. “Water-resistant” is still around, but the label has to specify how long it protects you after going underwater — either 40 or 80 minutes. Even if you get the “water-resistant” kind of sunscreen, you’re still going to have to reapply often.

A higher SPF doesn’t mean you don’t have to reapply

SPF stands for sun protection factor (and, as stated above, only applies to UVB rays). SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 98%. SPF 100 may give you about 1% more protection, but the high number misleads consumers into thinking they’re getting twice as much protection — and they’re not. Anything labeled SPF 50+ or above is not going to do much more for you than SPF 50. And if a sunscreen has an SPF lower than 15, it has to have a warning label saying that it doesn’t protect against skin cancer or premature skin aging.

If you apply SPF 15, theoretically it’s supposed to protect you 15 times longer than not wearing it at all. But all sunscreen wears off. And it wears off faster if you get wet or sweat. The application itself will only last an hour and a half to two hours — and that’s if you applied it correctly. This applies to every sunscreen, regardless of SPF. The length of time in the sun that your skin can tolerate without reapplication won’t change with a higher SPF.

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Use Spray-on sunscreen with caution

It’s important to evenly cover your skin when you use spray-on sunscreen, and follow the standard rules of sunscreen application, like applying it 20 minutes before you step outside, and reapplying later. It’s also important to avoid spraying it on your face, as research is being done about the dangers of inhaling the spray. So when applying it to your face, spray it on your hands and then rub into your face.

Skin Cancer Is On The Rise

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. More than 90% of melanomas (the most dangerous type of skin cancer) are caused by cell damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. According to a study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), melanoma rates doubled from 1982 to 2011. In 2011, more than 65,000 melanoma cancers were diagnosed.

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If you’re worried about nanoparticles, you can get sunscreen without them

Titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles block UV rays, and contribute to the sunscreen going on clear or mostly clear because they’re so small. Their small size allows them to directly absorb the radiation from sunlight, especially UVB. However, there has been debate over the safety of nanoparticles: one, that they are so small that they can be absorbed into the bloodstream and two, that they contribute to premature aging. Nanoparticles have been associated with developmental and reproductive issues in animals, so naturally it is a concern for humans. So far though, research about absorption into the bloodstream has been minimal.

Australia’s Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) found that, based “on current evidence, neither TiO2 nor ZnO NPs are likely to cause harm when used as ingredients in sunscreens.” Another study released in early 2014 showed that the body’s immune cells (microphages) actually absorb and break down zinc oxide nanoparticles when exposed to them, rendering them harmless. While the benefits of sunscreen outweigh the risks of potentially harmful ingredients at this time, more studies are being done. Sunscreens without nanoparticles are available — they’ll just be thicker, greasier, and more opaque.

Don’t skip sunscreen to get more vitamin D

Depending on how fair skinned you are, you may get enough vitamin D despite sunscreen, as sunscreen blocks only most of UV rays and not all. People with darker skin pigments have a harder time absorbing vitamin D from the sun. However, salmon and other fatty fish, supplements, and foods fortified with vitamin D like milk, cereal, and orange juice are all practical ways to meet your daily vitamin D intake. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academies’ Recommended Dietary Allowance (RDA) of vitamin D is 400 IU (International Units) a day for children under 1 year, 600 IU a day for people between 1 and 70, and 800 IU a day for people 70 and older.


Additional ways to lower your risk

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  • Apply sunscreen to clean and dry skin at least 20 minutes before heading outside.
  • Apply enough sunscreen (at least a teaspoon per body area).
  • Reapply sunscreen every hour and a half to every two hours.
  • Avoid being outside during peak hours of UVA and UVB rays, between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. Check your local weather sites for the UV index.
  • Cover up your body when you can and wear clothing that’s tightly woven. If you can see through it when you hold it up to the light, it won’t offer much protection.
  • Stay in the shade as much as possible.
  • Wear sunglasses and hats, like this darling Swirl & Flower sun hat. It’s available in multiple colors, and each purchase helps fund mammograms for women in need. Buy today!
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C. Dixon likes to read, sing, eat, drink, write, and other verbs. She enjoys cavorting around the country to visit loved ones and experience new places, but especially likes to be at home with her husband and dog.