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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  • MaryNGatlin
  • Sweetie

    If you’re going to promote sunscreen use then I would suggest also promoting a new legal requirement that sunscreens not contain any chemicals that significantly interfere with hormones, especially for those used by children. Pthlalate fragrances in particular have no place in them since they serve no significant purpose.

    I also think more evidence needs to be provided that shows that it’s OK to get nanoparticles in one’s eyes and in abrasions/cuts. I apply chemical blockers on my forehand and around my eyes to avoid the nanoparticle problem but then you get the chemical soup that chemical blocker sunscreens use — which often includes eye stingers — as well as the issues of having to carry around two sunscreens and having to reapply more frequently since chemical blockers degrade from UV unlike oxides.

  • Sweetie

    1) SPF rating is almost meaningless. It refers to UV-B which causes the unpleasant burning feeling but not the serious damage. UV-A is what causes the blood vessel damage because it penetrates deeper. A chemical that blocks UV-B may let UV-A pass right through, making SPF a worthless rating.

    2) Some sunscreens have chemicals that actually cause cancer when exposed to UV light, like retinol (a vitamin when ingested but a toxin on the skin in sunlight). Phthalates (from the unnecessary fragrances and plastic softeners) and other harmful chemicals are also found in most sunscreens. Some of the UV blocking chemicals themselves may interfere with hormones.

    3) The safest sunscreens, both in terms of UV-A blocking ability and avoidance of chemical reaction problems (hormone interference, etc.) should be those that just use metal oxides to cause the UVA radiation to just reflect. Unfortunately, we’re being guinea pigs for the industry which is putting large amounts of nano particles in to reduce the opacity of the white from the oxides. Nano particles don’t generally penetrate the skin but they are strong oxidants when they can mess around with living tissue. People will get them in their eyes, from cuts, and from residue from hand-to-mouth eating. You may be accelerating your aging by putting all of those oxidants into your system. Also, diesel vehicle pollution reducers create nano particles that embed themselves deeply in lung tissue and are more harmful than the clouds of smoke from unscrubbed diesel. So much for VW and their “clean” diesel.

    4) Chemical blockers like avobenzone can only block a certain amount of UV-A before they physically degrade. Some may degrade as quickly as 30 minutes. Metal oxides (titanium/zinc) do not degrade.

  • And wear a hat when you’re outside for very long. My dermatologist just found pre-cancerous cells…on the top of my head. Not somewhere I’d have put on sunscreen. People used to ear hats for a reason. We quit doing that for some reason and it wasn’t a good idea.

  • PaulineSValencia
  • nicho

    Right. It’s beer you need.

  • 2karmanot

    YEP!

  • ComradeRutherford

    His Interior Secretary, James Watt, said at a press conference that America should sell all the national parks to oil and real estate developers because Jesus is coming soon, so keeping such treasures doesn’t matter any more.

  • Indigo

    Gotta stay hydrated. Vodka doesn’t do it.

  • Indigo

    Many things are attributed to St. Reagan. That one sounds authentic.

  • 2karmanot

    Drinking vodka tonics and spending an afternoon in a Key West pool before the sunstroke hit all those decades ago cured me for good. Now when going out I look like Violet Venerable crossing the Rubicon.

  • ComradeRutherford

    Saint Reagan said that we have to get used to wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants and big hats because expecting corporations to stop killing the planet was not allowed.

  • Indigo

    Yes! Moisturize with appropriate sun screen before you step out the door. It’s not just a pool-side ointment, you know.

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