National Consumers League

Protect your skin! Be sun-smart this summer


If you ask Americans what the largest organ in their body is, my guess is that a good number would never think to say their skin. But not only is the skin our largest organ, it is a multifunctional one that plays a vital role in protecting our body. Our skin is our first line of defense; it provides a physical barrier between our internal organs and the environment, regulates our body temperature, and has billions of sensory nerves that are responsible for every sensation we feel.

Though our skin plays such an essential role in our health, most of us do not protect it as we should. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States and worldwide, with over 3.5 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. each year. In 2014, the U.S. Surgeon General declared skin cancer a public health crisis, as one in five Americans will develop it over the course of their lifetime, and incidence rates are steadily increasing. While there are genetic factors, such as race, gender, and family history that may predispose a person to skin cancer, ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the cause of the majority of cases and is a proven human carcinogen. In fact, approximately 90 percent of skin cancer cases are associated with UV radiation from the sun or sun lamps.

The good news is that UV radiation is the most preventable cause of skin cancer, and there are plenty of things you and your family can do to protect yourselves from the sun. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), four out of five cases of skin cancer can be prevented by practicing sun safe behaviors. Perhaps the most common of these behaviors is wearing sunscreen, which works by absorbing and reflecting UV rays before they reach your skin. Each sunscreen has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF), which is a measure of its ability to block harmful UV radiation. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that a broad- spectrum SPF 15 sunscreen should be used, many other organizations recommend using a broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen, including the American Cancer Society and the National Council for Skin Cancer Prevention.  For recreational activities, a waterproof sunscreen with a higher SPF (SPF ≥ 30) is recommended, and is usually labeled with how long it is effective while swimming or sweating (usually 40 or 80 minutes). Those that are labeled “broad spectrum” are best, as they protect you against both types (UVA and UVB) of UV rays.

Individuals with fair skin and lighter hair generally require sunscreens with a higher SPF, as they are typically more prone to skin damage. On the other hand, a common misconception is that individuals with darker skin do not need to wear sunscreen at all. This is false! Though darker skin tones may be less prone to sunburn, tanning is also evidence of sun damage. There are also other risks associated with UV exposure including premature skin aging, wrinkles, hyperpigmentation, and of course, skin cancer.

There are a number of factors to consider when deciding which sunscreen is best for you and your family. For example, children have different sun protection needs than adults. Questions you may want to consider before choosing a sunscreen are:

  • Will your sun exposure be incidental or continuous?
  • Do you have sensitive skin?
  • Is your skin allergy or acne prone?
  • Do you have dry or oily skin?
  • Does your family have a history of skin cancer?
  • What texture sunscreen would you prefer?

Thankfully, there are a broad range of sunscreens on the market that are safe and effective. Between sprays, creams, sticks, mineral sunscreens, or sunscreens built in to other cosmetic products, it is more than possible to find one that can accommodate your personal preferences and lifestyle. The Skin Cancer Foundation provides a wealth of information on how to choose the right sunscreen for your skin type, and you should feel free to ask your dermatologist for advice as well.

That being said, the only way your sunscreen can truly be effective is to use it as directed. Studies show that most consumers apply less than half of the amount of sunscreen needed to receive the SPF on the label. So whichever sunscreen you choose, be sure to read and follow the directions for appropriate application. Below are a few general tips on how to apply different types of sunscreens:

  • For lotions, use a golf ball size amount to cover your body.
  • For sprays, hold can/bottle 4-6 inches away from your skin, spray until it glistens, and gently spread to cover your skin evenly.
  • For stick sunscreens, apply at least 3-4 passes over the skin.
  • For your face, use an amount equal to the size of a small coin.
  • The American Academy of Dermatology also recommends the following to protect yourself from the sun:
  • Seek shade and limit your time in the midday sun, as the sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.
  • When going outside, protect your skin with clothing such as wide-brimmed hats, long sleeved shirts, and UV blocking sunglasses.
  • Use extra caution near water, sand, or snow as these surfaces reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun, which can increase your chances of sunburn.
  • Do not go to tanning salons. Just like the sun, UV light from tanning beds can cause wrinkling and age spots and can lead to skin cancer. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product, and continue to use your sunscreen with it.
  • Regularly check your skin for signs of skin cancer. Checking and knowing your skin is a key factor in detecting skin cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages. If you notice something out of the ordinary with your skin, do not hesitate to consult your healthcare provider or dermatologist.

As temperatures rise and we begin to plan our vacations for some much needed fun in the sun, practicing sun safe behaviors is of the utmost importance. It is never too late to integrate sun safe practices into your life and introduce these practices to your family. HAPPY SUMMER!