If you’re an outdoor enthusiast, you may not realize how much UV exposure you’re getting while pursuing your passion. Maximize your sun safety with our experts’ best tips.
By Lorraine Glennon
Since you’re on The Skin Cancer Foundation’s website, you likely know these basics: Wear sunscreen every single day — sunny or cloudy, summer or winter, autumn or spring. As long as you can see daylight, the rays being emitted by our planet’s number-one star are hitting your skin. For your extended outdoor activities, use sunscreens with a sun protection factor, or SPF, of at least 30. The label should read “broad spectrum” to confirm that the product protects against the most harmful known types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation: UVB rays, which largely cause sunburn, as well as UVA rays, which are associated with tanning and premature aging but can also lead to sunburn. Both types of UV rays can cause damage to DNA in skin cells, and both contribute to skin cancer.
If you’re already doing all of the above, congratulations on your vigilance: According to several recent surveys, you’re among the roughly 10 percent of Americans who say they use sunscreen every day. That statistic is shocking enough, but it pales in comparison with the finding that nearly half the population admit they never use sunscreen at all.
Even if you are one of the few who unfailingly apply sunscreen, there’s more you could do to protect your skin, says researcher Henry W. Lim, MD, former chair of the Department of Dermatology at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit and a member of The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Photobiology Committee. Dr. Lim suggests thinking of sunscreen as the primary building block from which you assemble a multifaceted plan — in his words, “the whole package of sun protection.” We hope these expert tips will inspire you.
- Find the right sunscreen for you. There are myriad formulations out there, for every skin tone and skin type, and as The Skin Cancer Foundation’s president, Deborah S. Sarnoff, MD, says, “the best sunscreen is the one you will wear every day.” Granted, this may take some trial and error, so look for small or even sample sizes to try. If the one you love seems expensive, remember that you are investing in your skin, not only to prevent dangerous cancer but also to keep your skin looking young. It is the best antiaging strategy there is.
- Add “water resistant” to the list. No sunscreen is waterproof, Dr. Lim cautions, but a water-resistant one will be more effective when you’re in the water or sweating during physical activity or simply from being outside on a hot or humid day. Remember that your skin can get sunburned while you’re swimming because water reflects sunlight, as does sand, snow and ice.
- Apply your sunscreen everywhere your skin is exposed. Your face, understandably, may seem like the most important part of your body to protect, but don’t neglect the multitude of other surfaces that are also exposed (think ears, scalp, hands, chest, etc.). Cover every nook and cranny that is, or will be, uncovered.
- Be liberal, even extravagant, in your use. Sunscreen, alas, is not one of those products of which it can be said, “A little goes a long way.” To get the necessary coverage, you must apply a lot — and people rarely do. “In a study at the Good Housekeeping Institute’s Beauty Lab,” says April Franzino, beauty director at Good Housekeeping, Prevention and Woman’s Day magazines, “we measured how much sunscreen a group of women applied when they were given unlimited access to dispensers full of sunscreen. On average, it was just 33 percent of the recommended amount.”
How much is the recommended amount? Think a generous dollop about the size of a nickel for your face and a 1 oz. shot glass (about two tablespoons) for body and face together, says New York City Mohs surgeon Julie K. Karen, MD, a clinical assistant professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center. But one amount may not suffice for everyone. It may be more useful to think about how thickly to apply a product. Apply lotion as if you are painting a fence and want good coverage, then rub it in. If you’re using a spray or a stick, apply until an even sheen appears on the skin, then rub it in.
- Reapply, reapply, reapply. This is advice we’ve all heard, yet most of us don’t do it, largely because we forget or don’t want the hassle. But realize that the UV protection in sunscreen wears off after only about two hours, and that goes faster than you realize when you’re having fun. Dr. Karen says, “If you’re doing extended outdoor activity, you should go through an eight-ounce bottle every two days.”
- Check the expiration date. Sunscreen has a pretty long shelf life, especially if it has been stored in a cool, dark place (not left outside or in a hot car). Most are good for about three years, but check the date to be sure, and have newer backup ready to go. The date may be on the outer packaging, or look on the crimped end of a tube, or near or on the bottom of a bottle or jar. Check the date before buying, too, to make sure it gives you plenty of time to use it up.
- Broaden the spectrum further. The visible light portion of the spectrum is a growing area of research that has important implications for sunscreen use, particularly for people with darker skin tones. Recent research by Dr. Lim and others has found that it can induce redness in fair-skinned people and a tanning response that is especially persistent and intense in people with darker skin. The latter can exacerbate melasma or other forms of hyperpigmentation — conditions that traditional broad-spectrum sunscreens don’t address. “Patients say, ‘I use broad-spectrum sunscreen all the time, but my melasma always gets worse in the summer,’” says Dr. Lim. “That’s because those sunscreens don’t protect against visible light.”
Tinted sunscreen made with iron oxide or, more rarely, pigmentary titanium dioxide, can help. The tint not only adds protection against visible light but also mitigates the chief complaint that people have long had about some sunscreens — they don’t rub in easily and create an ashy, chalky look that is particularly evident on skin of color. Both of these are listed, however, as inactive ingredients, so be sure to read the complete labels.
- Enhance your sunscreen with an antioxidant. Some companies are incorporating antioxidant ingredients into their sunscreens to help mitigate damage from free radicals generated by sun exposure. In the past, Dr. Lim says, many of these antioxidants were not biologically active. But now, he says, citing research he and colleagues recently published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, “the technology is such that many antioxidant products are biologically active, and the sunscreens that contain them have been shown to mitigate the hyperpigmentation induced by visible light.”
Some dermatologists advise patients to use a stand-alone antioxidant, such as a vitamin C serum, under their regular sunscreen in the morning to enhance their sunscreen’s effectiveness. Dr. Karen says you can also consider taking an oral antioxidant supplement made from an extract of a South American fern plant called Polypodium leucotomos. If you’re on a hiking or camping trip (or running a marathon, like she does), this can help reduce the risk of sunburn and neutralize the free radicals that can age the skin. She explains, “The plant evolved to produce chemicals that protect it from the damaging effects of the sun.”
- Keep an eye on the UV index. The UV index, which is calculated by the National Weather Service and posted online by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), measures the intensity of ultraviolet radiation in a given location in whole numbers from 0 (at night, when there’s no sunlight at all) to a high of 11 (extreme radiation, when your skin can burn in less than 10 minutes). While you should never skip sunscreen, knowing the UV index in your area (which depends on a host of factors, including the season, the altitude, the state of the ozone layer and the cloud cover in each location) can help you understand your risk and let you plan your activities accordingly and make sure you have all the sun protection you need. To find the UV index in your location, enter your ZIP code at the EPA site.
- Do the other stuff, too! Sunscreen is crucial for protecting exposed skin, but it has limits, including that most people don’t use enough of the product, miss spots and forget to reapply. If shade is available, use it. Or carry a parasol. Physical barriers, including a wide-brimmed hat, UPF sun-protective clothing and UV-blocking sunglasses are some of the best ways to help keep your skin safe.
Lorraine Glennon is a writer and editor based in Brooklyn.