Protecting your skin against damaging rays is always in season
While those back-to-school ads may prematurely turn your thoughts to fall, it's still too soon to pack up your swimsuits and charcoal grills. And definitely don't push aside that sunscreen; the sun's cancer-causing, wrinkle-inducing rays beat down on us year round, rain or shine.
With one American dying every hour of melanoma (according to the American Academy of Dermatology), it's imperative to protect yourself even when temperatures begin to dip. And thanks to some recent FDA changes affecting sunscreens, staying sun smart is easier than ever.
"The best way to avoid damage caused by the sun's damaging rays is to stay out of the sun," says Mark Hoffman, MD, a dermatologist at Rush University Medical Center.
Because that strategy isn't always realistic, Hoffman recommends covering up by wearing hats, sunglasses and long sleeves; avoiding sun exposure during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are most dangerous; and slathering on the sunscreen.
"But people don't always reap the full benefits of sunscreen and put themselves at risk because selecting sunscreen and using it appropriately can be confusing," Hoffman says.
FDA makes changes
To help clarify some of the confusion regarding sunscreens, the FDA made some changes regarding labeling this past year. Sunscreens now must pass a test to garner the "broad spectrum" label. Broad spectrum sunscreens are the most protective; they help to keep out both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation (but note, no sunscreen can shield you against all ultraviolet rays).
Sunscreens not shown to be broad spectrum or having an SPF of at least 15 now carry warning labels, noting that spending time in the sun increases the risk of skin cancer and early aging and that the product hasn't been shown to help prevent sunburn, skin cancer or early skin aging.
What is SPF anyway?
SPF stands for "sun protection factor," and it is a guide that isn't without critics: For instance, the testing to arrive at a number is performed indoors and on skin types that might be different from your own.
That said, SPF numbering works this way: If you typically get a sunburn in 10 minutes without protection, an SPF 15 sunscreen protects you from burns 15 times longer than those 10 minutes (or 150 minutes); an SPF 20 protects you for 20 times longer (or 200 minutes).
Hoffman says that SPF 30 should be adequate for most people in that it blocks 97 percent of UVB rays; however, dermatologists may recommend that some patients (such as those with heightened sensitivity to the sun) use a sunscreen with of 45 (anything higher hasn't been shown to provide any addition protection).
To determine the SPF number that's best for you, Hoffman says, talk to your dermatologist.
"Waterproof" sunscreens don't exist
Another FDA change: They nixed the misleading terms "waterproof" and "sweatproof" because no sunscreen is anything-proof. For the same reasoning, the term "sunblock" has disappeared; no lotion or spray can truly block the sun.
The term "water resistant," however, remains in the mix, but the label must indicate how long you can expect the SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating. And only two times are allowed on labels: 40 minutes and 80 minutes.
"We know that sunscreen eventually wears off when you're in the water," says Hoffman. "People should put on sunscreen every two hours while they're outside, whether or not they're sweating or in the water. Now, with the FDA's new rules, the public will have a better understanding of what works and what doesn't."
And while not part of the recent FDA regulations, sunscreen sprays may also be affected down the line. Because they are applied differently from lotions, they may not provide the same coverage, and critics are concerned about the effects of sprays on the lungs when they are inhaled.
Clouds and trees: pretty, but not sunscreens
In addition to misconceptions about sunscreen, other issues regarding sun exposure can cloud judgement, including clouds themselves, which can't deter sunburn-causing ultraviolet (UV) rays.
So resist the urge to skip the sunscreen on overcast days. Think that 100-year-old oak tree provides an adequate respite from the sun? Think again. "UV rays can reflect off water, sand and snow, so it's possible to get sunburned even while relaxing in the shade," Hoffman says.
Lather up before, not after
Your skin needs time to absorb sunscreen for it to work effectively, so don't wait until you're already outside to pour it on. Apply sunscreen at least 20 to 30 minutes before stepping outside and repeat every two hours.
As for quantity, imagine filling up a shot glass with lotion and go with that amount for your face and body. It's definitely better to have too much than too little, Hoffman says.
Everyone should take precautions
While it's true that skin cancers occur most often in light-skinned individuals, those with dark skin can also be affected by these deadly diseases.
"In fact, blacks with skin cancer often don't get diagnosed until the cancer has advanced, making the disease potentially more lethal," says Hoffman.
Particular areas of concern for blacks: places on the skin with little or no pigmentation, including the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet. So regardless of your skin tone, play it safe and wear sunscreen — even on parts of your body that aren't directly exposed to the sun.