The incidence of skin cancer is on the rise in the U.S. This year alone, the American Cancer Society estimates there will be more than 73,870 new cases of malignant melanoma—the most serious form of skin cancer—and more than 2 million new cases of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers. In fact, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S.
While many people think skin cancer prevention starts and ends with sunscreen, there are a number of additional measures one can take to guard against the sun’s rays. Dermatologists emphasize the importance of wearing protective clothing—including a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt; pants; a wide-brimmed hat; and sunglasses with UV protection. Dermatologists also stress that sunny weather is not a summer phenomenon; the sun emits harmful UV rays all year long, requiring year-round sunscreen use.
While most people recognize the importance of using sunscreen when venturing outdoors to enjoy a sunny summer day, there are plenty misconceptions about how to use it. Some of these include:
I only need to use sunscreen if I’m going to the beach. Sunscreen should be applied every day you will be outside, year-round. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin.
Most sunscreens are the same. Commercially available sunscreens vary widely. To ensure you have enough protection, purchase sunscreen that is labeled “broad spectrum” (which means it can protect your skin from both UVA rays and UVB rays), has an SPF of 30 or higher, and is water resistant.
Squeezing a small amount of sunscreen onto my palm is enough to protect my body. Most people apply only 25 percent to 50 percent of the recommended amount of sunscreen. Most adults need about one ounce—or enough to fill a shot glass—to fully cover their body. Remember to apply sunscreen to the tops of your feet, your neck, your ears, your lips, and the top of your head. When outdoors, reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours—or after swimming or sweating—according to the directions on the bottle.
The higher SPF level I use, the less likely I’ll be to get burned. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30—the number recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology—blocks 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays. Sunscreen with higher SPF numbers only block slightly more of these rays; no sunscreen can block 100 percent of UVB rays.
High-number SPFs last the same amount of time as low-number SPFs. A high-number SPF sunscreen does not mean you can spend an additional amount of time outdoors without reapplying it. Sunscreens of all levels should be reapplied approximately every two hours when you are outdoors.
Sunscreen never expires. The FDA requires that all sunscreens retain their original strength for at least three years. If you come upon an old bottle of sunscreen, check the expiration date. Throw it out if it is expired, or if you are unsure how long you’ve had it. If you buy a sunscreen that does not have an expiration date, write the purchase date on the bottle so you know when it will expire.
The good news is that skin cancer is highly preventable. This year when you welcome the start of summer during the long Memorial Day weekend, take adequate precautions to protect yourself and your family while you enjoy fun in the sun.
Sources: American Academy of Dermatology, American Cancer Society, National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention
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