It’s a sobering fact: Over 175,000 men and women will be diagnosed with a melanoma this year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). And everyone is vulnerable, regardless of the color of their skin. With numbers consistently increasing over the last three decades and new findings on the effects of sun exposure – experts say almost 80 percent of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18 – it’s never too soon to take preventive measures to safeguard your family.
Maximize Your SPF Power
Using sunscreen is common sense, but to get the most protection you need to do your homework. Application to little ones should start at 6 months and be used liberally on all areas not covered with protective clothing, UV sunglasses and a hat. Infants, toddlers, older children and adults benefit most from a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher to block the sun’s skin-damaging UVA and UVB rays.
“Ideally, with SPF 30 it would take you 30 times longer to burn than if you weren’t wearing sunscreen,” says Steven Q. Wang, M.D., a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. “An SPF of 30 allows about 3 percent of UVB rays to hit your skin. An SPF of 50 allows about 2 percent of those rays through.” That may seem like a small difference, he notes, “Until you realize that the SPF 30 is allowing one and a half times more UV radiation onto your skin. That’s a 150 percent difference!”
Higher SPFs offer more protection against sunburn, but Wang cautions against their usage instilling a false sense of security. “People who use them tend to stay out in the sun much longer. They may skip reapplying and think they don’t need to seek shade, wear a hat or cover up with clothing,” he says. “So they end up getting a lot more UV damage, which, of course, defeats the purpose.”
How much is enough? “If you use sunscreen generously and frequently, a bottle of sunscreen shouldn't last long,” says Lawrence E. Gibson, M.D., professor of dermatology at Mayo Clinic School of Medicine. “Generally, a liberal application is 1 ounce – the amount in a shot glass – to cover exposed parts of the body.” Depending on your body size, you might need to apply more, he adds.
Pick the Right Protection
Debra Jaliman, M.D., board-certified dermatologist, AAD spokesperson and author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist, recommends a formula with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Because the ingredients’ micronized particles are large, they can’t be absorbed by the skin, so they sit on top, casting a whitish film that enables you to see exactly where you’ve missed spots. If a zinc oxide-based formula is not to your liking, go for a sunscreen that evenly coats the skin, such as a lotion or cream, as a spray tends to create a mist that doesn’t cover as well.
The scalp, ears, neck, lips, back of hands and top of feet tend to be neglected when it comes to application. To ensure everyone is completely covered, apply liberally, first using vertical, then horizontal strokes. It takes at least 30 minutes for sunscreen to bind to the skin’s surface, so be sure to get a jump-start before the family heads outdoors. Reapply every two hours; more often if the kids are constantly in and out of the water or perspiring in the sun.
For fidgety kids who just won’t stand still long enough for sunscreen to be applied (again and again), consider UV protective clothing, such as swim shirts and rash guards that block the sun. Many come with a UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) of 50+, significantly more than the average T-shirt’s UPF of 5.
Shake Off That False Sense of Security
Protecting your family’s skin – and health – also includes knowing if anyone is predisposed to certain skin cancers.
“People who have dark skin tones often believe they’re not at risk for skin cancer, but that is a dangerous misconception,” says Maritza I. Perez, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and a senior vice president of The Skin Cancer Foundation.
Sadly, 63 percent of African-American participants in a recent survey said they never used sunscreen, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation. But research finds that dark-skinned individuals, including African-Americans, are more susceptible to acral lentiginous melanoma (ALM), a high-risk form of melanoma that typically appears on the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.
“Ethnicity does not define skin type,” stresses Perez. “It can represent a wide range of skin tones with a wide range of risks.”
Take a Timeout
Of course, you want your family to make the most of long summer days, but a midday break can do a lot to save everyone’s skin. Finding refuge in a shady spot or under a beach umbrella between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the most intense, is a good practice to get into, whether playing or relaxing.
But don’t slack off on sunscreen duty: A respite under the trees still calls for coverage, as does a cloudy day. Those UVA and UVB rays penetrate right on through, even when you can’t see the sun.