There’s a mind-boggling variety of sunscreens out there — gentle ones for kids, waterproof ones for sports, and fancy ones for faces. There are lotions and creams and sprays and powders. There are mineral sunscreens and SPFs ranging from single to triple digits. Despite some $1.3 billion spent on sunscreen each year, skin cancer is still on the rise in the United States, with 2 million cases diagnosed annually. What’s going on?
One answer might be that sunscreens might be giving us a false sense of security, and some researchers think we end up getting more ultraviolet (UV) exposure than we think. Ultraviolet rays are higher energy than visible violet light — high enough to damage our skin, eyes, and immune system. They can even damage DNA and cause skin cancer. While some insects and birds can see UV, we have no way to see or feel the rays out there.
So when the UV index is high outside (weather and specialty sites will have that info) — or there’s a higher-than-usual level in your neck of the woods — it’s a good idea to have a sun strategy beyond a tube of sunscreen. “In the US we tend to overemphasize sunscreen,” says Jean Tang, MD, PhD, associate professor of dermatology at Stanford University School of Medicine. “Shade, clothing and hats, sunscreen, they’re all comparable. The important thing is to use whatever works for you.”
Fortunately there are many ways to outsmart the sun, from basic shade and clothes to some cool new tech. We also have the latest thinking on sunscreen. Short version: Don’t toss it yet! But there’s lots more you should be thinking about. Here are 15 ways to avoid wrinkles and sunburn.
- Know your limits. Play it safe when the UV index is high, as skin can damage or burn in as little as 10 minutes, especially if you’re fair skinned, freckled, on certain medicines, or otherwise sensitive to the sun. “Know your own personal risk,” says Tang. “Fair-skinned people have a five times higher risk of skin cancer.” Dark skin naturally blocks more UV than light skin, but darker-skinned people can — and do — still sunburn. (Just be sure to get enough sunlight to produce the vitamin D you need for healthy bones and cell growth. For most people, about 10 minutes a day is enough.)
- Account for the environment. Water, snow, and sand reflect a fair amount of UV, so you’ll be getting more than the UV index might predict — even if it’s cold outside. Clouds can block some rays, but up to 90 percent of UV might pass through light clouds. At higher altitude, you’re exposed to more harm than at sea level. Our UV infographic has lots more information.
- Stay in the shade. Ultraviolet peaks when the sun is most intense, between 10 am and 2 pm, but can be high for most of the day, from 8 am to 4 pm (you might need to adjust for daylight saving time; 2 pm in the summer may really be 1 pm as far as the sun is concerned). Shade can cut down at least 50 percent of UV.
- Cover up. Light and breezy long-sleeved shirts look stylish, keep the sun off, and also keep you cool by creating a little pocket of cool air around you — no wonder people who live in hot climates often wear loose, long-sleeved clothes. When swimming, use a rash guard or other swim top with good coverage and sun protection (many are treated to block UV).
- Top it off. A hat is like portable shade! It’s a good way to shade your eyes and face and cut some visual glare too. “You want a broad-brimmed hat,” says Tang. “A baseball cap isn’t enough.”
- Don’t forget your eyes! UV can damage your eyes, so get a high-quality pair of sunglasses with good coverage (like wraparound styles) and make sure they protect against UVA and UVB (99 or 100 percent) or say “UV 400” (they protect up to 400 nm wavelength, which includes the longer UVA waves). UV coatings are clear, so the color or darkness doesn’t matter; polarization cuts glare but doesn’t block UV. Sunglasses are especially important when the sun is lower in the sky (UV can enter your eyes directly).
- Avoid getting burned. Hopefully, it goes without saying that you should avoid sunburns, as they're proven to cause skin cancer. According to a large study, sunburns earlier in life are the worst. The FDA says you shouldn’t use sunscreen on babies under age 6 months, so keep them out of strong sun and use hats, shirts, and sunglasses. Don’t let your skin get pink or red, says Tang, and don’t use tanning beds, which usually use deep penetrating UVA rays. “Skin cancer is on the rise partly because of indoor tanning,” says Tang. “I’ve seen bad cases of skin cancer because of lots of indoor tanning, even in younger people.”
- Go high tech. Personal UV monitors can help you track your exposure. The SunFriend ($50) is a wearable waterproof monitor that tracks your exposure over the day. The June by Netatmo ($129) looks like a cool bracelet but requires an iPhone app to read the data. You can also get inexpensive single-use bands (Sunburn Alert, Sundicators) that let you know when it’s time to reapply your sunscreen.
- Check yourself for moles. Yes, even if you’re dark-skinned — anyone can get skin cancer. Suspicious moles may be dark, irregular, large or fast growing, or just very different from other spots on your skin (ugly ducklings). If you see one, get it checked out by your primary care doctor.
Sunscreen: It’s complicated
Sunscreen definitely plays an important role — it’s great at protecting your face and other uncovered bits from sunburn and aging. Just be aware that unless you pick the right type and use it the right way, sunscreens may not fully protect you. They can also encourage you to stay out for longer than you should, so they could do more harm than good.
Use enough. Most people use less than half of what they should. Follow the instructions on the bottle or tube; you need to use about an ounce at a time and may need to reapply several times a day, especially if you’re going in the water. If you don’t use enough, protection falls off steeply. Generally, experts say you need at least a nickel-sized blob for your face and about 2 tablespoons’ worth for your body — that’s enough to fill a shot glass.
Mind your SPFs. Go for at least a skin protection factor (SPF) of 15, but don’t bother spending extra for SPFs over 30 or 40; they don’t make much difference. (SPF 30 blocks nearly 97 percent of UVB rays, SPF 40 blocks 98 percent, and SPF 50 blocks 99 percent). The higher your SPF, the more sharply protection drops if you don’t use enough.
Get broad coverage. SPF ratings only apply to UVB, the short-wave type that causes sunburn. But some 95 percent of UV radiation that hits the earth is UVA (longer wavelength), which penetrates further into the skin and causes premature aging. Look for brands that say “broad-spectrum coverage” or “UVA and UVB protection.” Mineral sunscreens with zinc or titanium block both types by physically scattering UV rays (these products tend to look whitish on the skin), and avobenzone is a common chemical UVA blocker.
Check the reviews. Expensive sunscreens are better than cheap ones, right? Not true. A recent Consumer Reports review (subscription required) looked at 20 and found that store brands from Target and Walmart and basics from Coppertone and Banana Boat were among the best and cost under $12. “I use whatever’s on sale,” says Tang. “Whatever is nearby and SPF 30 or above.” So skip the designer $40-plus options unless you need something special for your finicky face.
Don’t use combos. Sunscreens that also have DEET or other powerful bug repellents might seem convenient, but if you’re reapplying sunscreen often, experts say you might end up with too much of the repellent chemical. Plus, lots of bugs bite at twilight or nighttime anyway.
Pick clean products. Given how much sunscreen you’ll be slopping on, it’s a good idea to pick something that won't be harmful to your health (or to aquatic life).
- Check the ingredients. Chemicals such as oxybenzone, parabens, phthalates, and fragrances can mimic hormones, and research shows they may lead to health problems.
- Also steer clear of anything with retinyl palmitate (a form of vitamin A) before you go into the sun, because some studies show it can increase sun damage to cells.
- As mentioned, mineral-based sunscreens have excellent UVA and UVB sun protection. They often have fewer worrisome chemicals as well.
- Sprays and powders may cause lung irritation, and you might not know when you’ve used enough, according to some consumer groups.
To help you choose, the Environmental Working Group has a database of sunscreens. Each product has an overall score from 0 to 10 based on UV protection and health concerns; there’s also detailed information on individual ingredients. For SPF-containing lotions, makeup, and lip balms, check their Skin Deep database and app. You could also ask your doctor or dermatologist for recommendations.
So before you head out to the beach, slap on some sunscreen, pack your umbrella, put on your coolest wraparound shades, and go ahead — make a style statement with your big floppy hat. Like our favorite cartoon tiger Hobbes says, “What fun is it being cool if you can’t wear a sombrero?”
More from Rally:
Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Sun Safety: Save Your Skin! FDA website.
Latha MS, Martis J, Shobha V, et al. Sunscreening Agents: A Review. The Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology. 2013 [Link]
Wu S, Han J, Laden F, et al. Long-term Ultraviolet Flux, Other Potential Risk Factors, and Skin Cancer Risk: A Cohort Study. Cancer Epidemiology, Biomarkers & Prevention. Published online May 2014. [Link]