By Anna C. Christensen, UA Cancer Center
TUCSON, Ariz. – Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world, and is caused mainly by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. In Arizona, skin cancer awareness programs ramp up with the escalating temperatures from spring to summer. By the time the mid-summer monsoons hit, these messages start to fall off our radar. When the weather once again is hospitable as fall rolls around, many of us are back to enjoying the outdoors without adequate sun protection. Reducing our risk of skin cancer, however, is a year-round activity.
Lisa Quale, health educator at the University of Arizona Cancer Center Skin Cancer Institute, works with the community to help people to learn the best ways to enjoy the sun’s benefits while protecting themselves from cancer-causing UV radiation. Each Tuesday in August, the UA Cancer Center is providing “Bear Down. Beat Cancer. Top 5 Strategies for Reducing Skin Cancer Risk.” Employing these strategies in combination will give us the best protection of all.
Top Five Strategy No. 3: Wear Sunscreen
It might seem strange that sunscreen, that old standby in skin protection, is strategy No. 3 for reducing skin cancer risk. Sunscreen doesn’t protect you from all UV rays; that’s why sun avoidance and protective clothing are the first lines of defense against the sun. However, sunscreen can be applied to parts of our bodies not usually covered by clothing, such as the face, ears and hands.
The UA Skin Cancer Institute recommends using sunscreen as a base – put it on first, before applying makeup or insect repellent, and apply it 20 minutes before going outside.
“Sunscreen needs time to absorb into the top layers of the skin and ‘settle’ in,” explains Quale.
Sunscreen is labeled by SPF – its sun protection factor. The SPF number indicates how long the sunscreen will protect your skin from UVB rays, which cause sunburn. Sunscreen with an SPF of 30, when correctly applied, allows a minute’s worth of UVB rays to reach your skin for every 30 minutes you’re in the sun. To avoid sunburn, SPF should be at least 30 and reapplied every two hours.
Most people do not use enough sunscreen, so they do not get the UV protection advertised on the label. Quale recommends that you apply it in two installments. “Put it on when you get up in the morning and then put on a second coat before you go outside. Not only are you going to make sure that you have enough on, but you’ll probably hit any spots you missed the first time.”
Protective ingredients in sunscreens can be divided into two types: mineral and chemical. That distinction might seem confusing – minerals are types of chemicals, after all – but the difference is that mineral sunscreen ingredients, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are physical UV blocks that reflect and scatter UV rays, while chemical ingredients, like avobenzone and mexoryl, absorb and neutralize these rays.
The following tips can help you choose the best sunscreen:
- Check the ingredients for zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, avobenzone or mexoryl
- Make sure the product offers at least SPF 30, and is labeled as broad spectrum (providing protection from both UVA and UVB rays)
- If you will be in the water or sweating, check to see if it is water- or sweat-resistant
- Check the expiration date to ensure you’ll be able to use it before it expires
The UA Skin Cancer Institute doesn’t recommend any particular brand of sunscreen, as long as it meets the above criteria. Consumer Reports has independently tested and rated sunscreens to ensure they actually provide the SPF promised on the label.
Some people hate sunscreen – claiming it smells weird, feels greasy, causes acne, hurts their eyes when they sweat or interferes with makeup, among other complaints. Luckily, a range of products can address these concerns. Find a sunscreen that you like – try different products and ask friends and family if you can sample their favorites. Investing in something you like and will use will pay dividends in the future.
Sunscreen doesn’t have to be squirted out and slathered on – sunscreen also comes in spray-on and stick formulations. How do they compare to classic lotions?
“Sprays should be applied evenly to the skin and then rubbed in. If you follow the directions, sprays cover quite well,” says Quale. “Always apply it in a well-ventilated room or outside in the shade.” Never spray sunscreen directly onto your face – spray it into your hands and then apply it to your face or use a different product for your face.
As for sunscreen sticks, Quale says, “Waxy sticks go on pretty thick, so chances are you’ve used enough. I only recommend this type of product for small area spot application – ears, nose, forehead.”
Store sunscreen in a cool, dark place. Like many medications, its effectiveness starts to wane when it gets too hot or is exposed to light – making glove compartments or window sills less-than-ideal storage locations.
Your skin health is important regardless of the season. Stay tuned throughout August for more weekly strategies on reducing your skin cancer risk every day of the year. Check out our previous tips here. To request an appointment with a dermatologist, please call the UA Cancer Center at 520-694-2873. You can find more information on the UA Cancer Center’s website.