Sunscreen Mistakes Even Smart People Make
Considering the fact that 40 to 50 percent of Americans who live to age 65 will get skin cancer at least once, it's always a good time for a (proverbial) skin check. Dermatologists sound off on the most common SPF missteps.
You’ve heard that one shot glass of sunscreen is enough to cover your body. Problem is, knowing and doing are two different things, says Marcy Street, a dermatologist in Okemos, Michigan. Studies show that most people apply just a quarter of the amount needed to reach the SPF on the bottle. “Under-applying an SPF 15 means that you’re really getting an SPF 8,” says Street. To ensure the right amount, measure a generous handful for your body and a nickel-size blob to protect your face.
Every sunscreen must be reapplied. Period. No matter what the SPF—15 or 50—all formulas (water-resistant ones, too) degrade significantly after two hours in the sun, and sooner than that if you’ve been in water or sweated heavily. But reapplication isn’t important only when you’re lounging at the beach. “If you spend your day next to a window or driving around in a car, you are getting UV (ultraviolet) exposure through the glass,” says Jeanine Downie, a dermatologist in Montclair, New Jersey. She recommends using stick or powder sunscreens, such as Colorscience Sunforgettable Brush On Sunscreen SPF 50 ($64, sephora.com), for everyday reapplication because they’re easy to swipe over exposed areas and won’t muss your makeup. Another good one: Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Face + Body Stick Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 70 ($10, drugstore.com).
Don’t see the words “broad spectrum” on your bottle? You’re probably not getting protection from both UVB rays (which burn and cause cancer) and UVA rays (which penetrate more deeply, cause cancer, and accelerate skin aging). “Most sunscreens today are broad spectrum,” says Downie. “But that’s not always true with moisturizers or makeup with SPF, which often do not provide UVA protection. Think of these as extra credit, and wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day, year-round, as well.”
The shot-glass analogy refers only to lotion. Sunscreen sticks, sprays, and wipes may make it more convenient to apply protection on the go, but they also increase your risk of under-application, because they go on so thinly. “Your goal is to have an obvious sheen everywhere you’ve put on sunscreen,” says Andrew Alexis, the chairman of the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s and Mount Sinai West, in New York City. That means two—yes, two—generous coats of spray, neck to toe, in a shielded area. With wipes, apply two of them, rubbing the first over the body head to toe, then the second toe to head. Swipe sticks over areas three times.
Most chemical sunscreens “must be applied about 30 minutes before you go in the sun,” says Steven Rotter, a dermatologist in Vienna, Virginia, and a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. “It takes that long for the ingredients to activate and start absorbing UV rays.” In contrast, physical sunscreens, with ingredients such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide, work straight from the bottle, because they literally block UV rays like a stone wall, rather than absorbing them, so there is a minimal activation period.
“Someone with very dark skin may have a natural SPF of between 5 and 8,” says Downie. However, while having that extra melanin can minimize a person’s risk of burning, it does not protect her from UVA rays or the skin cancer they can cause, she warns. Additionally, because the skin is darker, “we don’t have the obvious marker of a burn to tell us when we’ve sustained serious sun damage,” says Alexis. “And later on it’s not as easy to see skin cancer developing on dark skin because, while something like basal-cell carcinoma appears pearly pink on a Caucasian, on a deep skin tone, it’s often a more subtle brown spot that tends to scab more easily.” Finally, because skin cancer is harder to detect on dark skin, when it is diagnosed, the prognosis is often dire: Late-stage melanoma diagnoses occur in 52 percent of black-skinned melanoma patients, versus in only 16 percent of white-skinned patients. Bottom line: “All skin colors must wear sun protection daily, because everyone can get skin cancer from UV exposure,” says Alexis.
“Most of us are pretty diligent about applying sunscreen to the face, but then we forget the ears or the lips or the back of the neck,” says Downie. So it’s no coincidence that these three often-neglected spots are among the most frequent sites for basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas, the two most common non-melanoma skin cancers. Melanoma, meanwhile, crops up most frequently on the backs of women’s legs, another area that is hard to see and reach. The moral: Coat all exposed areas with sunscreen and reapply regularly.
“We often hear patients say, ‘It’s “just” skin cancer,’ when they get a diagnosis. They figure they’ll get it removed and be done with it,” says Shelby Moneer, the director of education for the Melanoma Research Foundation. “But it’s important to know that melanoma can spread to distant organs, and that’s how it takes people’s lives. And it often spreads quickly.” The latest statistics show that in the United States one person dies of melanoma every hour. But basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas can both metastasize as well. More than 5 million Americans are expected to be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer this year. That’s why dermatologists stress the importance of annual skin checks and keeping tabs on your own skin. Don’t wait until your checkup if you notice a new or suspicious spot; call your doctor. “We say, ‘If you see something, say something,’ ” says Moneer.
“Sunscreen is an important element of sun protection, but it shouldn’t be the only one,” says Alexis, who says that we must also avoid prolonged and intense sun exposure (like tanning) whenever possible and wear clothing and accessories to help block the sun. Darker-colored fabrics with a tight weave and fit offer the most UV protection. Certain clothes also provide an ultraviolet protection factor (or UPF), with most boasting a UPF of 50+, which means only 2 percent of the sun’s rays can penetrate. Stylish sun-protection companies include Parasol (parasolsun.com), Cover (coverswim.com), and Nike (nike.com).
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration mandates that sunscreens either retain their full strength for three years or include an expiration date. Check the bottle. If yours doesn’t have one, write the purchase date on the tube. If you can’t find a date and can’t remember when you bought the product, toss it or call the manufacturer’s customer-service number for more information.