Memorial Day — long considered the unofficial start of summer in the U.S. — is quickly approaching, and dermatologists from the American Academy of Dermatology are urging Americans to practice safe sun as they head outdoors, especially as shelter-in-place measures related to COVID-19 begin to lift. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., affecting one in five Americans in their lifetime, yet new data from the AAD shows that many Americans aren’t protecting themselves from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays.
According to a recent AAD survey, most Americans say they have gotten a sunburn and admit it has impacted their day-to-day life. Of those who have been sunburned, 60% said their sunburns made their clothes uncomfortable; 43% said they couldn’t sleep; and 21% said they were embarrassed about their sunburns.
Although most skin cancers can be prevented, it is estimated that everyday approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer, and nearly 20 Americans die from melanoma — the deadliest form of skin cancer. Throughout Skin Cancer Awareness Month in May, the AAD is encouraging Americans to #PracticeSafeSun to reduce their risk of skin cancer.
“Sunburns are highly preventable, but each year, one in three U.S. adults gets sunburned 1,” says board-certified dermatologist Bruce H. Thiers, MD, FAAD, president of the AAD. “As dermatologists, we know that unprotected exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays is a major risk factor for skin cancer. It only takes a few simple steps to protect yourself from the sun, and it can reduce your risk of getting sunburns, skin cancer, and premature skin aging, such as wrinkles and age spots.”
Dr. Thiers recommends that everyone protect themselves from UV rays by:
- Seeking shade when appropriate, remembering that the sun’s rays are strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shade.
- Wearing sun-protective clothing, including a lightweight and long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection, when possible.
- Applying sunscreen to all skin not covered by clothing, including your ears, neck, hands, feet and lips. Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. “Broad spectrum” means that the sunscreen will protect you from both UVA and UVB rays — both of which can cause skin cancer.
- Being extra careful around water and sand, as these surfaces reflect the sun’s rays, increasing your chance of sunburn.
- Choosing not to tan — both indoors or outdoors. Many people believe that tanning to get a base tan will prevent sunburn, however, this is a myth. If you have a base tan, you can still burn, and it’s important to remember that tanned skin is damaged skin. Every time you tan or burn, you also damage the DNA in your skin, which increases your risk of getting skin cancer, as well as premature skin aging.
When it comes to sunscreen, board-certified dermatologist Henry W. Lim, MD, FAAD, acknowledges that recent news about sunscreen has many patients confused about the best approach for sun protection and has some even questioning whether they should be using sunscreen at all. However, he emphasizes that scientific evidence supports the benefits of sunscreen to prevent sunburn and reduce the risk of skin cancer.
“Sunscreen — along with seeking shade and wearing protective clothing — plays a key role in protecting the skin from UV rays,” says Dr. Lim. “Research suggests that daily use of sunscreen reduces the risk of melanoma.”
Dr. Lim says that sunscreen should be applied 15 minutes before going outdoors and reapplied every two hours or after swimming or sweating. Even on cloudy days, he says, up to 80% of UV rays can penetrate the skin, making it important to apply sunscreen on all areas not covered by clothing whenever spending time outdoors. In addition, sunscreens expire after three years, so consumers should throw out their sunscreen if it’s expired or if they’re unsure how long they’ve had it.
When selecting a sunscreen, Dr. Lim says it helps to familiarize yourself with the two types of sunscreens available — chemical and physical. Both protect you from the sun, he notes, but in different ways:
- Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays. They contain one or more of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. While studies have shown that some of these chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the body through the skin, the researchers pointed out that just because an ingredient is absorbed into the body does not mean that it is harmful or unsafe.
- Physical sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, act like a shield. They sit on the surface of the skin, deflecting the sun’s rays. These are products that contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
For children and those with sensitive skin, Dr. Lim recommends choosing a physical sunscreen. For individuals with darker skin tones, tinted sunscreen products that can blend with the natural skin color should be considered.
“Just like brushing your teeth and washing your face, sun protection should be an important part of your daily routine,” says Dr. Thiers. “Practice safe sun whenever you go outdoors and talk to a board-certified dermatologist if you have questions about how to protect your skin and prevent skin cancer.”