May has finally arrived, and with it comes the perfect opportunity to bask in the beauty of the outdoors. But before you race to soak up that vitamin D, we wanted to provide a guide to keeping your and your family’s skin safe with proper sunscreen use in honor of Skin Cancer Awareness Month.
From understanding the different types and functions of sunscreen to the significance of checking expiration dates, AST & ADCI have you covered (literally!).
Understanding Skin Cancer
It’s easy to forget that those delightful springtime rays come with some not-so-delightful risks, including skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States.
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma.
Basal cell carcinoma, the most common and least aggressive form, arises from the skin’s basal cell layer in the epidermis. Squamous cell carcinoma, the second most common type, originates from the squamous cells in the main layer of the epidermis. Though both types are usually treatable when caught early, they can cause disfigurement or other complications if left untreated.
Melanoma, the rarest and most aggressive form, develops from the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes. This dangerous skin cancer can spread quickly and may even be fatal if not detected early.
Various risk factors contribute to the development of skin cancer, including fair skin, family history, excessive sun exposure, and frequent use of tanning beds. However, skin cancer can affect anyone, regardless of skin tone or background. Preventative measures like sunscreen, donning sun-protective clothing, and seeking shade during peak sun hours can significantly decrease your risk. Additionally, regular skin self-examinations and annual dermatologist visits can help catch any suspicious changes early on.
Sunscreen 101: Types and Functions
Sunscreen is our trusty sidekick in the fight against skin cancer, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all solution. There are different types of sunscreens, each with its own set of characteristics and benefits.
Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens
First, let’s look at the two main categories of sunscreen: physical (mineral) and chemical.
Physical sunscreens contain mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which form a protective barrier on the skin’s surface to deflect harmful UV rays. These sunscreens tend to be less irritating and are great for sensitive skin. However, they may leave a white cast on darker skin tones and can feel heavier on the skin.
On the other hand, chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and convert them into heat, which is then released from the skin. Active ingredients in chemical sunscreens include avobenzone, oxybenzone, and octinoxate. These sunscreens are typically more lightweight and less visible on the skin, but they can cause irritation or breakouts for some individuals.
Broad Spectrum Protection: UVA & UVB
Regardless of the type, selecting a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum (both UVA & UVB wavelengths) protection is essential, as it shields your skin from UVA and UVB rays.
UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, causing premature aging, while UVB rays are responsible for sunburns. Both types of rays contribute to the risk of skin cancer, so make sure your sunscreen is doing double duty!
Sun Protection Factor
The Sun Protection Factor measures how well a sunscreen protects against UVB rays.
An SPF 30 sunscreen, for example, filters out about 97% of UVB radiation, while SPF 50 filters out 98%. It’s crucial to choose a sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30 but don’t be fooled by sky-high SPF numbers. No sunscreen can block 100% of UV rays.
Water-Resistant vs. Waterproof Sunscreens
When it comes to having fun in the sun, whether swimming, sweating, or splashing around, you’ll want sunscreen that can keep up with your aquatic adventures. That’s where water-resistant and waterproof sunscreens come into play.
Water-resistant sunscreens are formulated to provide protection for a specified amount of time (usually 40 or 80 minutes) while swimming or sweating. It’s essential to reapply water-resistant sunscreen immediately after toweling off, as the physical act of drying can remove some of the product from your skin.
On the other hand, waterproof sunscreens claim to maintain their protective properties even when submerged in water. However, the FDA no longer recognizes the term “waterproof” for sunscreens, as no sunscreen can truly be impervious to water.
Regardless of the label, it’s always a good idea to reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming, sweating, or toweling off to ensure continuous protection.
Sunscreen Application Tips
Now that you’re well-versed in the different types of sunscreens and their functions, it’s time to master the art of application! After all, the best sunscreen is the one you use correctly.
How Much Sunscreen to Apply
Believe it or not, most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to get the promised protection on the label. The general rule of thumb is to use a shot glass-sized amount (about 1 ounce or 30 milliliters) for your entire body. For your face and neck, a nickel-sized dollop should suffice.
Remember, it’s better to apply too much than too little!
When to Apply Sunscreen
Timing is everything when it comes to sun protection. Apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before heading outside to give it ample time to form a protective barrier on your skin, then reapply every two hours or more frequently if there’s water or sweat involved. Be sure to protect those easy-to-miss areas like your ears, the back of your neck, your scalp (especially if you have thinning hair), the tops of your feet, and the backs of your hands. If you’re wearing a swimsuit, don’t neglect the edges of the fabric, as they can shift throughout the day and expose unprotected skin.
Remember that even on cloudy or cooler days, up to 80% of the sun’s harmful UV rays can still reach your skin, so make sunscreen application a daily habit.
The Importance of Checking Expiration Dates
We’ve covered the sunscreen types, their functions, and application tips, but there’s one more aspect to consider: expiration dates.
The effectiveness of the active ingredients in sunscreen decreases over time, which means you may not get the protection you need. Moreover, expired sunscreens can become unstable and change texture, color, or smell, leading to skin irritation, breakouts, or even an allergic reaction.
Most sunscreens have an expiration date printed on the packaging, usually on the bottom or the back of the tube or bottle. However, if you can’t find a date, a good rule of thumb is to assume that the product has a shelf life of three years from the manufacturing date, but should be used in one year once opened.
Proper storage can help you get the most out of your sunscreen’s shelf life. Keep it in a cool, dry place, away from direct sunlight or extreme temperatures. Excessive heat can cause the active ingredients to degrade more quickly, reducing the product’s effectiveness.
Other Sun Protection Measures
While sunscreen is fundamental to sun protection, it shouldn’t be your only strategy.
- Not all clothing is created equal when it comes to blocking harmful UV rays. Look for garments like loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and pants made of tightly woven fabrics. They’re your best bet for sun protection,
- A wide-brimmed hat is an excellent accessory for shielding your face, ears, and neck from the sun’s rays. Pair it with sunglasses that provide 100% UVA and UVB protection to keep your eyes safe from harmful radiation. Wraparound sunglasses or those with large lenses are particularly effective at blocking UV rays from entering your eyes from the side.
- Sun intensity is at its highest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so it’s best to seek shade during these hours whenever possible. Remember, the sun’s rays can still reach your skin indirectly through reflection off surfaces like water, sand, or concrete, so continue to use sunscreen and other sun protection measures even when in the shade.
As we head into May and Skin Cancer Awareness Month, investing in high-quality sunscreen and building a sun-safe lifestyle should be at the top of your priority list.
To help you choose the best products for your skin, visit Advanced Skin Therapeutics, where you’ll find an extensive range of sunscreens to suit every skin type and preference, including CeraVe Hydrating Mineral SPF 30, EltaMD UV Sport Broad-Spectrum SPF 50, and Kinesys SPF 30 Spray, amongst many other options.
And let’s not forget dermatologists’ vital role in skin cancer prevention and early detection. Establish a relationship with your provider at ADCI for annual skin exams and ongoing care. Dr. Briden will be your trusted partner in safeguarding your skin’s health, helping you spot early warning signs, and guiding you on your sun protection journey.