You probably don’t use sunscreen, and you should

With summer here, the need for sunscreen should be apparent to everyone. Ultraviolet light from the sun can damage skin and lead to skin cancer, including melanoma, which is a particularly aggressive form of cancer.

Before discussing the research, here’s some information on proper sunscreen use, courtesy of the CDC below.  There may be some things there that you didn’t know about the correct way to use sunscreen, like their advice that you should apply sunscreen about 30 minutes before going outdoors? That gives the sunscreen a chance to soak into the skin, decreasing the chance that it will wash off with perspiration.Some skin cancers can cause death if not found and treated early. And not just for the paler among us: People of all skin colors can get skin cancer from the sun’s UV rays. However, those who are most likely to get skin cancer from these rays have:

  • Lighter natural skin color
  • Skin that burns, freckles, gets red easily, or becomes painful from the sun
  • Blond or red hair
  • Blue or green eyes
  • A family member who has had skin cancer.

People who spend a lot of time outdoors, either for work or play, are also more likely to get skin cancer from UV rays.Here are some more sunscreen usage tips:

  • Use a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Follow the directions on the package for using a sunscreen product on babies less than 6 months old. All products do not have the same ingredients; if your or your child’s skin reacts badly to one product, try another one or call a doctor.
  • The sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. Put sunscreen on before you go outside, even on slightly cloudy or cool days.
  • Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than 2 hours, and after you swim or do things that make you sweat.
  • For the average-sized, non-obese person, at least a tablespoon of sunscreen should be used to cover all exposed body areas. Of course, if you aren’t sure if you’re fully covered, use more.
Summer sun, via Pexels

Summer sun, via Pexels

It’s important to cover ALL exposed areas of skin (but be careful in applying sunscreen around the eyes). A recent study shows that very few people are using sunscreen on their faces and, of course, skin cancers and other effects of solar radiation can be found there. Men are particularly bad at using sunscreen at all, much less using it correctly, with 44 percent of men reporting that they never use it. Only about 18% used it on their faces. Women did slightly better, with 30 percent of female respondents reporting using sunscreen on a regular basis, with 43 percent using it on their faces.

Sunscreen needs to be used and reapplied frequently (roughly every 2 hours or so), and more frequently if you’re sweating or in water.

People who have a lot of sun exposure either from work, play or both, should have periodic checks by a dermatologist to look for skin cancer and precancerous lesions.  Skin cancer incidence also increases as we age.  So even for people who aren’t sun worshippers, it’s a good idea to have a dermatologist check out your skin for cancers.

Mark Thoma, MD, is a physician who did his residency in internal medicine. Mark has a long history of social activism, and was an early technogeek, and science junkie, after evolving through his nerd phase. Favorite quote: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science... is not 'Eureka!' (I found it!) but 'That's funny.'” - Isaac Asimov

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