Q: Why do I feel like I only see stories about sun protection in the summer?
Media coverage of skin cancer and the need for sun protection proliferates in May for a couple of related reasons. In most of the country, the weather starts to warm up in the spring, and people tend to go outdoors more and cover up less. By summer, they’re wearing shorts, T-shirts, tank tops and other clothing that leaves more of their skin exposed to dangerous ultraviolet (UV) rays than at other times of the year.
Meanwhile — most likely because it represents the launch of “sun season” — May has been designated Skin Cancer Awareness Month. This kind of branding works well in prompting magazines, newspapers, websites, podcasts and other media to give the topic plenty of coverage (think breast cancer in October), and it’s fantastic consciousness-raising.
But it’s essential to understand that sun damage is cumulative. The damage from UV radiation that you’re exposed to on an everyday basis accumulates over time, 12 months a year. That’s why in the health and beauty departments of the publications I work for, we constantly stress the importance of using broad-spectrum, SPF 30 or higher sunscreen every single day, cloudy or sunny. You need to make sun protection part of your routine year round, not just when the summer sun is blazing and you’re relaxing by the pool. It adds up, whether it’s through the car window when you’re driving or while you’re walking in the park.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of myths and other obstacles that may prevent some people from using sunscreen as effectively as they could. They may have read articles alleging that chemical formulas are harmful. The FDA has asked for more data on these ingredients, but they remain FDA-approved and the medical community generally believes they are safe and effective at preventing skin cancer. If you have any concerns, though, you can opt for a mineral formula, based on zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. But then there’s the misconception that the mineral formulas are chalky, heavy or sticky, even though many innovative formulas today have eliminated those barriers to daily use. And even when you’ve managed to get people onboard with applying sunscreen every day, it can be tough to get them to reapply it every two hours or after swimming or sweating.
Another issue with sunscreen use is that people almost never apply the recommended amount, which is approximately a nickel-size dollop for the face and a shot-glass-full for the face and body together. In a study, our Beauty Lab at the Good Housekeeping Institute measured how much sunscreen a group of women applied when they were given unlimited access to dispensers full of sunscreen, and on average, the amount was just 33 percent of what was recommended.
That study is one reason we tell readers that, in general, the higher the SPF, the better. If you’re using an SPF 30 and putting on a third of what you should, you’re only getting the equivalent of an SPF 10. Steven Q. Wang, MD, chair of The Skin Cancer Foundation’s Photobiology Committee, says that an SPF 30 allows about 3 percent of UVB rays (mainly responsible for sunburn) to hit your skin. An SPF of 50 allows about 2 percent of those rays through. That may seem like a small difference until you realize that the SPF 30 is allowing 50 percent more UVB radiation onto your skin!
One other reason not to think skin protection is seasonal: More researchers are saying we should think beyond UV light, since we spend hours a day sitting in front of devices with screens that emit the kind of blue light also found in the visible part of the sun’s spectrum. Some tinted cosmetic formulas may help protect against blue light, and glasses that block blue light are popular and may help protect your eyes. Adding an antioxidant serum containing vitamin C or choosing a sunscreen that incorporates antioxidants may help protect against free radicals from exposure to visible light and keep your skin looking great! — Interview by Lorraine Glennon