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Sun Day School: Skin Cancer Protection Tips

How you apply sunscreen, the lifestyle choices you make, and even the foods you eat can determine how well your skin stands up to UV rays. To help boost your protection and reduce your risk of sunburn, wrinkles, and skin cancer, try these derm-approved moves.

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Make Over Your Medicine Cabinet

Popping an OTC pain reliever might soothe sore muscles, but it can also leave you with lasting sun damage. Light particles may react with chemicals in certain pain relievers, making skin more sun sensitive, says Jordana S. Gilman, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. "The biggest culprit is naproxen," she says. "But the effect has been reported with ibuprofen as well." Some antibiotics, contraceptives, topical retinoids, diuretics, and antidepressants can also heighten sun sensitivity. Talk to your doctor and check your meds for their potential side effects. To play it safe, reapply SPF every two hours, switch to a more sun-safe pain reliever like acetaminophen and ask your doc about less photosensitizing prescription drugs.

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Double Up on Certain Spots

A shot glass's worth of sunscreen is enough to cover your whole body, but derms say you might want to add a second coat to your nose, lips, hands, and ears and the tops of your feet -- areas that tend to burn. "You won't be doubling the protection, but you may actually get the SPF listed on the bottle with two coats," says Ava Shamban, MD, a dermatologist in Beverly Hills. (Studies have shown that of those people who use sunblock, most apply only half the recommended amount.)

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Sit in the Shade

Time in the sun can give you more than a burn; it may lead to a dreaded summer cold by suppressing your immune system, says Leslie Baumann, MD, a dermatologist in Miami. To protect yourself, seek shade and wear SPF daily. Too late? Boost your intake of vitamin C -- nosh on citrus fruits, strawberries, and peppers -- and use creams that contain the nutrient. "Studies show that vitamin C helps your immune system work better, and it's a powerful antioxidant that will neutralize free radical damage," Dr. Baumann says.

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Scan New Labels

The FDA has mandated that, effective June 18, every sunscreen, as well as any makeup or moisturizer that contains it, must state its degree of SPF, its water-resistance (40 or 80 minutes), and whether or not it's broad-spectrum (meaning it provides both UVA and UVB protection). To get the most out of your bottle, Arielle Kauvar, MD, a dermatologist in New York City, suggests choosing one with an SPF of at least 30. Because sweat counts as water, use water-resistant sunscreen even when you're not hitting the pool.

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Practice Damage Control

Keeping skin safe goes beyond shielding it during daylight. The effects of just 10 minutes of unprotected sun can last up to 72 hours, says Eric Bernstein, MD, a dermatologic surgeon in Ardmore, Pennsylvania. "When the sun hits the skin, it rearranges the collagen and elastin, triggering inflammation for days," he says. To speed up repair, Dr. Bernstein suggests a nighttime regimen that includes antioxidants, such as vitamin E, to reduce inflammation, and peptides to help the skin heal itself. And go ahead, indulge in dessert: Dark chocolate is full of bioflavonoid antioxidants, which shield skin from free radical damage caused by UV rays, says David Katz, MD, director of the Yale University Prevention Research Center. And its effects are cumulative. "Several ounces a week, along with regular SPF use, should provide continuous protection," he says.

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Go for a Morning Run

The early bird gets the worm -- and possibly a reduced risk for skin cancer, according to a study from the University of North Carolina. Based on preliminary findings, scientists believe that a protein responsible for DNA repair is more active in the a.m., which may mean that morning sun is far less likely to damage your skin. But this isn't an excuse to ditch the SPF: "Rays are strong enough to burn your skin even at dawn," says Jeanine Downie, MD, a dermatologist in Montclair, New Jersey.

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Account for Glare

If you think you can skip the sunscreen just because you're sitting under an umbrella, think again. "Wearing a hat or using an umbrella is better than no protection, but UV reflection can still cause damage," says Bruce Katz, MD, a dermatologist in New York City. At the beach, the sand reflects 15 percent of UV light, water throws off up to 10 percent, and sea foam bounces back 25 percent. Bottom line: Wear sunscreen, even if you're under cover.

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Fake It

Self-tanner does more than give you a healthy glow; it may lead to healthier sun habits, a new study revealed. Researchers found that nearly 40 percent of people who used sunless tanners reported that they were less apt to sunbathe or visit a tanning salon. That's great news considering that, according to another study, women who used tanning beds were almost 70 percent more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma before they turned 40. If you're among the almost 19 million women who go to tanning salons, try a faux glow instead and get your skin examined by a derm stat.

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Get a Skin Check

FITNESS is teaming up with the Skin Cancer Foundation for the annual Road to Healthy Skin Tour, which provides free screenings by dermatologists at 85 stops across the country.

And keep these pointers in mind.

Show the derm any injuries. Researchers have found that cancers tend to develop around cuts and in scar tissue. Be sure the doc examines any wounds, old or new.

Remove your nail polish. Color can hide irregular spots. "Cancer can affect the skin around and under the nails," says Elizabeth Tanzi, MD, a derm in Washington, D.C.

Go twice for extra height. If you're tall, consider getting your skin checked at least two times a year. A study found that women over five feet six inches had a 30 percent greater risk for developing melanoma than those under five foot three. Height is associated with growth hormones that may play a role in the development of skin cancers.

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Top Sunblocks

Regular sunscreen use in sunny environments can reduce your risk of melanoma by 50 percent. Our SPF picks:

Best for...

1. Every Day: Aveeno Positively Ageless Correcting Tinted Moisturizer SPF 30 ($20, drugstores) fights lines with vitamin C and gives you coverage without feeling like a mask.

2. Sensitive Skin: Banana Boat Sunscreen Natural Reflect Lotion SPF 50+ ($11, drugstores) guards even delicate complexions with zinc oxide.

3. Oily Skin: With its nongreasy formula, L'Oréal Paris Sublime Sun Liquid Sunshield for Face SPF 50+ ($11, drugstores) pairs broad-spectrum protection with antioxidant vitamin E.

4. On the Go: Portable, water-resistant Sun Bum Pro SPF 30+ Face Stick Premium Endurance Sunscreen ($15, is perfect for tricky areas like eyelids, lips, and ears.

5. Outdoor Exercisers: Easy-to-use Coppertone Sport Pro Series Clear Continuous Spray Sunscreen with DuraFlex SPF 50+ ($11, drugstores) feels smooth, not sticky, and doesn't run even when you do.

6. Dry Skin: Vichy Capital Soleil Luxurious Protective Oil Sunscreen SPF 30 ($29, hydrates parched areas for a head-to-toe glow.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2012.

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