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Skin Cancer Protection: How To Choose A Sunscreen


The month of May marks several summer skin awareness campaigns, including “Skin Cancer Detection Month” and “Melanoma Awareness Month.” According to recent statistics, one in five Americans is found to have skin cancer in their lifetime. According to the most recent “Suntelligence” report from the American Academy of Dermatology, most people are not entirely clear on what they can do to protect themselves from developing the disease.

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Dermatologists agree that effectively using sunscreens and sunblocks is the key to protecting the skin from harmful UV rays. Sunscreens work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering UV rays.

However, all of the acronyms and marketing labels can leave a consumer confused about the best product to buy for the most protection. The FDA will soon begin using a “star” system to rate sunscreens, but until then, the Skin Authority and REI offer these tips for choosing the best sunblock:

1. Use sunscreen every day, rain or shine. Most people forget that UV rays can pass through clouds and hit the skin, even if you don’t see the sunshine.

2. Throw out the old and purchase new sunscreen each year. Sun protection expires after 12 months.

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3. Use a minimum of SPF 15 sunscreen for everyday use and SPF of 30 or higher for prolonged outdoor activity. SPF 50 is recommended for children older than 6 months. (Younger children should be physically shielded from the sun.) SPF stands for sun protection factor and protects against UVB rays that are responsible for skin cancer.

4. Purchase a product that also offers protection against UVA rays, which are associated with long-term damage and premature aging. These are often called “full-spectrum” or “broad-spectrum” protectants and include ingredients such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, or avobenzone (also called Parsol 1789).

5. Remember PABA? It is not used much today because it was found to cause allergic and photosensitivity reactions and had the potential to stain clothing. Look for a product that is PABA-free.

6. If you are swimming, “waterproof” sunscreen will provide protection in the water for 80 minutes, while “water resistant” will only provide 40 minutes worth. Spray-on sunscreens are more vulnerable to being washed off the skin more quickly than lotions or creams.

7. The average sized adult body requires about a shot-glass worth (about 1 ounce) of sunscreen for maximum coverage, so don’t skimp. Apply to all exposed skin. Don’t forget these common body parts that burn easily – ears, noses and the tops of the feet.

8. Apply sunscreen to dry skin 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure begins to allow the skin to absorb it all. Reapply often – at least every ninety minutes to two hours – when outside in the sun. Immediately reapply after swimming or sweating. Also keep in mind “altitude” and “latitude.” The higher you ascend and the closer you are to the equator, the more often you should reapply.

In addition to sunscreen, other ways to protect your skin from UV rays include protective clothing (look for the UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor, on the label), large hats, and UV protection sunglasses.