Protecting your skin
Most skin cancer can be prevented. Use the following tips to protect your skin from the sun. You may decrease your chances of developing skin cancer and help prevent wrinkles.
Although people with darker skin don't sunburn as easily, they can still get skin cancer. So it's important to use sun protection, no matter what your skin color is.
Avoid sun exposure
The best way to prevent a sunburn is to avoid sun exposure.
Stay out of the midday sun (from 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon), which is the strongest sunlight. Find shade if you need to be outdoors. You can also calculate how much ultraviolet (UV) exposure you are getting by using the shadow rule: A shadow that is longer than you are means UV exposure is low; a shadow that is shorter than you are means the UV exposure is high.
Other ways to protect yourself from the sun include wearing protective clothing, such as:
- Hats with wide 4 in. (10 cm) brims that cover your neck, ears, eyes, and scalp.
- Sunglasses with UV ray protection, to prevent eye damage.
- Loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs.
- Clothing made with sun protective fabric. These clothes have a special label that tells you how effective they are in protecting your skin from ultraviolet rays.
Preventing sun exposure in children
You should start protecting your child from the sun when he or she is a baby. Because children spend a lot of time outdoors playing, they get most of their lifetime sun exposure in their first 18 years.
- It's safest to keep babies younger than 6 months out of the sun.
- Teach children the ABCs of how to protect their skin from getting sunburned.
- A = Away. Stay away from the sun as much as possible from 10 in the morning until 4 in the afternoon. Find shade if you need to be outdoors.
- B = Block. Use a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher to protect babies' and children's very sensitive skin.
- C = Cover up. Wear clothing that covers the skin, hats with wide brims, and sunglasses with UV protection. Even children 1 year old should wear sunglasses with UV protection.
Sunscreen is a product that you put on your skin to protect it from the sun’s UV rays. But it’s important to know that sunscreen is just a filter – it does not block all UV rays. Sunscreen should not be used as a way to prolong your time in the sun. Even with proper sunscreen use, some UV rays still get through. Because of this, sunscreen should not be thought of as your first line of defense. Consider sunscreen as one part of your skin cancer protection plan, especially if staying in the shade and wearing protective clothing aren’t available as your first options. Sunscreens are available in many forms – lotions, creams, ointments, gels, sprays, wipes, and lip balms, to name a few. Some cosmetics, such as moisturizers, lipsticks, and foundations, are considered sunscreen products if they have sunscreen. Some makeup contains sunscreen, but you have to check the label – makeup, including lipstick, without sunscreen does not provide sun protection.
Read the labels
When choosing a sunscreen, be sure to read the label. Sunscreens with broad spectrum protection (against both UVA and UVB rays) and with sun protection factor (SPF) values of 30 or higher are recommended.
Sun protection factor (SPF): The SPF number is the level of protection the sunscreen provides against UVB rays, which are the main cause of sunburn. A higher SPF number means more UVB protection (although it says nothing about UVA protection). For example, when applying an SPF 30 sunscreen correctly, you get the equivalent of 1 minute of UVB rays for each 30 minutes you spend in the sun. So, 1 hour in the sun wearing SPF 30 sunscreen is the same as spending 2 minutes totally unprotected. People often do not apply enough sunscreen, so they get less actual protection.
Sunscreens labeled with SPFs as high as 100+ are available. Higher numbers do mean more protection, but many people don’t understand the SPF scale. SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%, SPF 50 sunscreens about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%. The higher you go, the smaller the difference becomes. No sunscreen protects you completely.
In the US, sunscreens with an SPF lower than 15 must now include a warning on the label stating that the product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.
Broad spectrum sunscreen: Sunscreen products can only be labeled “broad spectrum” if they have been tested and shown to protect against both UVA and UVB rays. Some of the ingredients in sunscreens that help protect against UVA rays include avobenzone (Parsol 1789), zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide.
Only broad spectrum sunscreen products with an SPF of 15 or higher can state that they help protect against skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures.
Water resistant sunscreen: Sunscreens cannot be labeled as “waterproof” or “sweatproof” because these terms can be misleading. Sunscreens can claim to be “water resistant,” but they have to state whether they protect the skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating, based on testing.
Expiration dates: Check the expiration date on the sunscreen to be sure it’s still effective. Most sunscreen products are good for at least 2 to 3 years, but you may need to shake the bottle to remix the sunscreen ingredients. Sunscreens that have been exposed to heat for long periods, such as if they were kept in a glove box or car trunk through the summer, may be less effective.
Be sure to apply the sunscreen properly
Always follow the label directions. Most experts recommend applying sunscreen generously. When putting it on, pay close attention to your face, ears, neck, arms, and any other areas not covered by clothing. And don’t forget your lips; lip balm with sunscreen is also available. If you’re going to wear insect repellent or makeup, put the sunscreen on first.
Ideally, about 1 ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass or palmful) should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck, and face of the average adult. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied at least every 2 hours to maintain protection. Sunscreens can wash off when you sweat or swim and then wipe off with a towel, so they might need to be reapplied more often.
Some people might think that if they use a sunscreen with a very high SPF, they don’t need to be as careful about how they use it, but this isn't true. If you choose to use a sunscreen with a very high SPF, keep in mind that this doesn’t mean you can stay out in the sun longer, use less sunscreen, or apply it less often. Always be sure to read the label.
Some sunscreen products can irritate your skin. Many products claim to be hypoallergenic or dermatologist tested, but the only way to know for sure if a product will irritate your skin is to try it. One common recommendation is to apply a small amount to the soft skin on the inside of your elbow every day for 3 days. If your skin does not turn red or become itchy, the product is probably OK for you.
Wear sunglasses that block UV rays
UV-blocking sunglasses are important for protecting the delicate skin around the eyes, as well as the eyes themselves. Research has shown that long hours in the sun without protecting your eyes increase your chances of developing certain eye diseases.
The ideal sunglasses should block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB rays. Before you buy, check the label to make sure they do. Labels that say “UV absorption up to 400 nm” or “Meets ANSI UV Requirements” mean the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays. Those labeled “cosmetic” block about 70% of UV rays. If there is no label, don’t assume the sunglasses provide any UV protection.
Darker glasses are not necessarily better because UV protection comes from an invisible chemical in or applied to the lenses, not from the color or darkness of the lenses. Look for an ANSI label.
Large-framed and wraparound sunglasses are more likely to protect your eyes from light coming in from different angles. Children need smaller versions of real, protective adult sunglasses – not toy sunglasses.
Some brands of eyeglasses and contact lenses now offer protection against UV rays as well. But don’t assume this is true for lenses you wear unless it’s clearly stated on the product label or you confirm this with your eye care professional. Of course, glasses come in many shapes and sizes, and smaller lenses will cover and protect smaller areas. Contact lenses don’t cover the whole eye and surrounding areas, so they are not sufficient eye protection when used alone.
A sunburn is skin damage from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Most sunburns cause mild pain and redness but affect only the outer layer of skin (first-degree burn). The red skin might hurt when you touch it. These sunburns are mild and can usually be treated at home.
Skin that is red and painful and that swells up and blisters may mean that deep skin layers and nerve endings have been damaged (second-degree burn). This type of sunburn is usually more painful and takes longer to heal.
Other problems that can be present along with sunburn include:
- Heatstroke or other heat-related illnesses from too much sun exposure.
- Allergic reactions to sun exposure, sunscreen products, or medicines.
- Vision problems, such as burning pain, decreased vision, or partial or complete vision loss.
Long-term problems include:
- An increased chance of having skin cancer.
- An increase in the number of cold sores.
- An increase in problems related to a health condition, such as lupus.
- Cataracts, from not protecting your eyes from direct or indirect sunlight over many years. Cataracts are one of the leading causes of blindness.
- Skin changes, such as premature wrinkling or brown spots.