10 Things You Need to Know About Sunscreen

Patricia Lucey, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist at the Inova Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center. She has a special interest in using screenings and other tools to detect the disease at its earliest stages. Read Dr. Lucey’s profile.

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. Melanoma makes up only a small fraction of skin cancer cases, but it’s by far the most deadly variety.

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates more than 87,000 new cases of invasive melanoma will be diagnosed and about 9,730 people are expected to die from the disease in the United States in 2017.

Melanoma rates doubled between 1982 and 2011. That’s frustrating, since many cases can be prevented. Exposure to sunlight or tanning beds can raise your risk significantly.

That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy fun in the sun – as long as you protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays. In honor of Melanoma Awareness Month, here are 10 important things everyone should know about sunscreen.

  1. Sunscreen is rated by sun protection factor (SPF). SPF measures how well sunscreen will protect you from the sun’s UVB rays, which cause burns. It doesn’t measure how well it protects from UVA rays, which are associated with aging. Both UVA and UVB can cause skin cancer, though, so it’s important to look for sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum,” which protect against both.
  2. To get the SPF listed on the label, you need to apply a thick layer of sunscreen – about an ounce for the whole body. Most people use less than half that, so don’t skimp.
  3. Reapply sunscreen every 2-3 hours, or more often if you’ve been swimming, sweating or wiping off with a towel.
  4. Sunscreen comes in two varieties: Physical sunscreens, which contain the minerals zinc or titanium, and chemical sunscreens, which contain carbon-based compounds that undergo a chemical reaction in the skin.
  5. Physical sunscreens are thicker, whiter, and can be harder to rub in. On the positive side, they start working immediately and are recommended for people with sensitive skin or people who are concerned about exposure to chemicals.
  6. Chemical sunscreens are easy to spread and soak in quickly, but they can sometimes irritate the skin or eyes. They also take longer to start working. If you prefer this type of sunscreen, apply it 15-20 minutes before heading outside.
  7. Cream sunscreens are best. Spray varieties don’t always cover evenly, and could be harmful if inhaled. Powder sunscreens also cover less evenly than creams.
  8. Makeup with sunscreen can offer extra protection, but don’t count on it to do all the work. Makeups usually have a lower SPF – people often apply a very thin layer, meaning it might provide less SPF than what’s on the label. Use an everyday lotion with sunscreen as a base. If your makeup has SPF, too, consider it a bonus.
  9. Make sunscreen (with at least SPF 30) part of your daily skincare routine, even if you don’t plan to hit the beach. You can be exposed to damaging rays while running errands or even while driving. In fact, we see more skin cancers on the left side of people’s faces, because of the sun exposure they get while they’re behind the wheel.
  10. For extra protection, avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., and protect your eyes with sunglasses. (Melanoma can develop in the eyes, too.). You can also buy clothing and hats with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), which is like sunscreen built into the fabric.

Learn more about the Inova Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center.

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