Don’t be shocked, but cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, have jumped 2.4 percent every single year since 1980 among women. To put it in more immediate terms, one person dies every hour from melanoma. And there’s this: A recent study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that participants who didn’t use sunscreen daily showed 24 percent more skin aging than those who did.
All of which begs the question: Why, oh why, are only 14 percent of women wearing sunscreen daily, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), especially when simply using an SPF of more than 15 can reduce the risks of developing skin cancer by 50 percent?
Real Simple asked readers on Facebook to give their reasons, then turned to dermatologists and researchers for solutions persuasive enough to overcome any obstacle.
The Excuse: Sunscreens Are Toxic
“Toxicity” was the number one reason why women in our unscientific survey said that they don’t wear sunscreen. Turns out, certain chemicals in sunscreens are problematic—but on lab animals. Retinyl palmitate, the vitamin A cousin that’s found in many sunscreens (and that boasts anti-aging effects when used in night creams), was shown to hasten development of skin cancer when worn after recent sun exposure. Oxybenzone, another common sunscreen ingredient, was linked to hormone disruption and possibly cell damage that may lead to skin cancer. But when it comes to humans, “in general, there’s no rigorous scientific evidence from clinical trials and research studies demonstrating that sunscreen ingredients harm the body,” says Frank Wang, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. “In contrast, sunscreens have been proven in studies to reduce the risk of skin cancer and an aged appearance.”
Still worried? Then steer clear of these ingredients altogether by using a chemical-free formulation with physical blocks, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These deflect UV rays rather than absorbing them and are gentle enough for sensitive skin. Try Alba Botanica Very Emollient Sport Mineral SPF 45 ($11.50, albabotanica.com) or MDSolarSciences Mineral Crème Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($30, mdsolarsciences.com).
The Excuse: I’ll Become Vitamin D–Deficient If I Use One
There has been an ongoing debate about how much vitamin D the body needs and what the source should be. Vitamin D is also known as the “sunshine vitamin,” since one way we get it is through the body’s response to UV rays. There was a fleeting moment several years ago when headlines suggested that people need more vitamin D than was thought and that we should get it directly from the sun. And so sun worshippers found the perfect excuse to toss the sunscreen and keep worshipping.
But in 2011 a large study at the Institute of Medicine of the National Academies, in Washington, D.C., discounted all that. The study reported that healthy Americans, even those getting little sun exposure, receive plenty of vitamin D from incidental sun exposure and dietary sources. The current recommended dietary intake is 600 IU (international units) a day from supplements or fortified foods, including milk. The paper also suggested that vitamin D isn’t quite living up to its hype. Aside from strengthening bones, its protective benefits against heart disease, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic illnesses remain inconclusive. Earlier this year, an analysis of 40 studies on vitamin D, published in the journal Lancet Diabetes & Endocrinology, drew similar conclusions.
In any case, says Barbara A. Gilchrest, a professor of dermatology at the Boston University School of Medicine, “there is no evidence that wearing sunscreen or otherwise practicing safe sun leads to vitamin D deficiency.” According to the National Institutes of Health, just 10 to 15 minutes of sun exposure without sunscreen three times a week delivers adequate levels of vitamin D for most complexions. After a certain amount of time, depending on your skin type, the UV damage continues, but no further vitamin D is thought to be produced. For most, maximum production occurs within about 30 minutes, says Gilchrest.
The Excuse: They Feel Sticky
Not anymore. Tacky formulations have pretty much gone the way of the white-nosed lifeguard. Instead of the heavy oils required to block intense UV radiation in the past, “some chemical sunscreens now use ‘SPF boosters’—like a topical form of vitamin C, which helps prevent UV damage—to enhance the existing protection while lowering the need for older, heavier ingredients,” says Joshua Zeichner, the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital, in New York City. As a result, formulas go on so light that they feel more like body lotion than sunscreen.
Physical blocks, like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are no longer a thick white paste, thanks to new formulas. Researchers, for instance, have found ways to convert those ingredients into nanoparticles, which are microscopic and ultralight, so they appear sheer. Initial concerns that these particles could be absorbed into the skin and harm living tissue were laid to rest by research showing that they do not, in fact, penetrate the outermost layer, which is made up of dead cells. “Plus, any prior evidence of harm from nanoparticles has not been proven in humans,” says Robert J. Friedman, a clinical professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, in New York City. Try La Roche—Posay Anthelios 60 Ultra Light Lotion Spray ($36, laroche-posay.us), which is a chemical sunscreen, or SkinCeuticals Sheer Physical UV Defense SPF 50 ($34, skinceuticals.com).
The Excuse: They Smell
Certainly not all of us want to smell like a piña colada or, worse, like some strange blend of chemicals, but there are loads of options that don’t have either aroma. “Physical sunscreens tend to be naturally devoid of any smell,” says Friedman. If you opt for chemical sunscreens, look for those labeled “fragrance-free,” as opposed to “unscented,” which may use allergy-inducing masking fragrances. Or pick one of the mineral-based products that are made for babies; these contain physical blockers and are lightly fragrant, if scented at all. Try Coola Classic Face SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen ($32, coolasuncare.com) for a chemical option or the Honest Company Sunscreen SPF 30 ($14, honest.com) for a physical block.
The Excuse: They’re Expensive
Er, try again. “There are expensive brands that offer excellent protection, but you can get the same level of protection from less expensive drugstore brands,” says Zeichner, who points out that the difference in price is often due to prettier packaging or added anti-aging ingredients, such as peptides or antioxidants. “The truth is, the active sun-blocking ingredients are probably the same,” says Zeichner. Try a chemical sunscreen like Sun Bum Shortie SPF 30 ($12, trustthebum.com) or a physical one like Yes to Cucumbers Natural Sunscreen SPF 30 ($12, yestocarrots.com).
To ensure that you’re getting the most out of your sunscreen…
Skip the sky-high SPF. Those numbers are inherently misleading, and there is insufficient data to show that they provide greater protection, according to the Food and Drug Administration, which has proposed prohibiting the sale of formulas with an SPF of over 50. “An SPF 50 blocks 98 percent of UVB rays, while an SPF 30 blocks 97 percent,” notes dermatologist Barbara Gilchrest. “These are not meaningful differences, particularly given that no one applies sunscreen in amounts that actually give the stated degree of protection.” (More on those amounts below.) The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises opting for an SPF of 30.
Choose a broad-spectrum product. This means that it protects against UVB and UVA rays, both of which can cause cancer. Look for “water-resistant” on the label, too, if you tend to sweat or if you're swimming. (Yes, you can burn underwater.)
Make sure that it’s fresh. Dispose of products that are past their expiration date or that have changed color or consistency (signs that they’ve gone bad).
Apply and reapply. The AAD suggests using at least one ounce of sunscreen (about the amount a shot glass holds) on all exposed areas, including the tops of the ears and toes and the back of the neck. Reapply every two hours or after you’ve been in the water or sweating, whichever comes first.
Can You Be a Tanning Addict?
In the summer, you’re soaking up rays, often sans sunscreen. When the cold weather comes, you’re frying in a tanning bed. If this is you, you’re not alone. A JAMA Dermatology review study published earlier this year reported that 55 percent of students who were attending college between 1986 and 2012, as well as 36 percent of the general adult population living in Western countries during that time, had visited a tanning salon at least once. And the numbers suggest that there are more skin-cancer cases due to indoor tanning than there are lung-cancer cases due to smoking, says Eleni Linos, a professor of dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, and a coauthor of the study. Why are so many people risking their health?
Research suggests that perpetual tanners may be as hooked on UV rays, from the sun or tanning beds, as heroin addicts are on the drug. Researchers report that frequent tanners may experience withdrawal symptoms, such as nausea, which is consistent with opiate withdrawal. If you find yourself having a hard time kicking the sun or tanning-bed habit and a bottled bronze won’t provide the same rush, try exercising to simulate the endorphin boost that you get from UV rays. For severe addicts, seeing a psychologist for appropriate therapy may help.