10 Skin Cancer Mistakes Even Smart Women Make
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Fitness

10 Skin Cancer Mistakes Even Smart Women Make

You wear sunscreen (well, most of the time), yet you may not be as safe as you think. What you don't know about sun protection can burn you. Here, 10 sun safety mistakes -- and how to fix them.

1. Expensive Sunscreen

Think you know everything there is to know about sun safety? So did we, until we started asking experts about the most common summer slipups and realized (oops!) that we make 'em too. Here are the top 10 ways many skin-protection plans go wrong -- and everything else you need to know to stay safe under the sun.

The Mistake: You grab the priciest sunscreen, figuring it's the best.

Cost doesn't necessarily indicate quality, says Vincent DeLeo, MD, chairman of dermatology at St. Luke's Roosevelt and Beth Israel Medical Centers in New York City. Some expensive sunscreens don't contain the key ingredients that can keep your skin safe, while some cheaper brands do.

Look for sunscreens with labels stating that they provide "broad-spectrum protection," which means they contain ingredients that block both UVA and UVB rays. UVBs are the primary cause of burning; but UVAs, in addition to burning the skin, penetrate deeper, causing genetic damage in cells and suppressing the immune system. Some experts believe that this may cause skin cancer -- even in areas that are not directly exposed to the sun, says Dr. DeLeo. Unlike UVBs, UVA rays can pass through glass and damage your skin while you're in the car or at your desk, so put on sunscreen if you'll be inside but near a window. Choose products with titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or Parsol 1789 (avobenzone) -- the best ingredients for UVA protection.

2. SPF Facts

The Mistake: You think "sun protection factor" (SPF) protects against everything.

It doesn't. The ingredients that provide SPF will shield you from only UVB rays. Even so, the protection SPF provides is critical, because UVBs (along with UVAs) play a role in the development of skin cancer.

Experts advise wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Those who burn easily (blondes, redheads, and anyone with fair skin) should opt for SPF 30. (Research shows that SPFs above 30 do not significantly increase protection.)

3. Bug Spray and Sunscreen

The Mistake: You put on bug spray before sunscreen.

Sunscreen needs to bind with clean, dry skin in order to be effective, so anything you apply beforehand (including lotion or makeup) may reduce its effectiveness. In addition, because sunscreen is highly absorptive, putting it on top of repellent may cause your skin to soak up more of the chemicals in the bug spray.

The best advice: Apply sunscreen first, wait 20 minutes, and then mist skin lightly with insect repellent.

Keep in mind that DEET-based sprays aren't necessarily the best choice: When you apply these repellents on top of sunscreen, you can reduce the sunscreen's effectiveness by as much as 30 percent, according to Xiaochen Gu, PhD, a professor of pharmacy at the University of Manitoba. For added protection against bugs, wear clothing that contains a built-in repellent, like Buzz Off, sold at L.L.Bean and Orvis.

4. All-Day Sun Protection

The Mistake: You always wear sunscreen, so you can stay in the sun all day long.

Even the best sunscreens don't offer complete protection. "Some rays still get through," says Robin Ashinoff, MD, medical director at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

Pro Tips

  • If you're going to be outside for more than a few hours, wear a wide-brimmed hat and seek as much shade as possible -- particularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest.
  • Apply more sunscreen every two hours, since the active ingredients start to degrade after that, says Darrell Rigel, MD, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center.
  • After four hours, two-thirds of your protection will be gone. If you go for a swim or work up a sweat, you need to be even more vigilant about shielding your skin from the sun. The American Cancer Society advises reapplying sunscreen after swimming or perspiring heavily.

5. Sunscreen Application

The Mistake: You apply sunscreen the minute you get outside.

Bad move. It takes at least 20 minutes for sunscreen to be absorbed into your skin and begin working; by then you can be on your way to a burn. Apply it at least 15 minutes before you leave home.

6. Eye Protection

The Mistake: You hate the hassle of carrying around sunglasses.

UV rays can induce cataracts, says Marian Northington, MD, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Alabama. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, African-Americans are the most susceptible, but everyone is at risk.

For maximum coverage, wear glasses that wrap around to your temples, so the sun can't sneak in from the sides. Your sunglasses should also have lenses that block both types of UV rays; the tag should include the phrase "100% UV protection."

7. Tanning Booth Myths

The Mistake: You pre-tan at a booth to prevent burning.

Don't be misled by those ads that claim tanning-booth rays are safer than the sun -- they also expose you to UVA and UVB rays and can cause the same damage to your skin. Ironically, a base tan can boost the likelihood of a burn because you may be fooled into believing you can stay in the sun longer.

The bottom line: Whether you get it in a booth or at the beach, there is no such thing as a safe tan. "A suntan is the skin's response to injury and DNA damage. With every tan, you accumulate more and more damage, which increases your risk of wrinkles and skin cancer," says James Spencer, MD, a dermatologist in St. Petersburg, Florida.

8. Expired Sunscreen

The Mistake: You're still using the sunscreen you bought a few years ago.

Thrifty? Yes. Smart? No.

If you're outside a lot and a six-ounce bottle of sunscreen lasts you longer than a month, you're not using enough. You should slather on a half-ounce with every application; one ounce if you're wearing a swimsuit (that's about the amount that would fill two-thirds of a shot glass). Using too little means you're only getting a fraction of the protection promised on the bottle, because you're not putting a thick enough layer of sunscreen on your skin, warns Janice Stumpf, a clinical associate professor at the University of Michigan Health System and College of Pharmacy.

9. Scalp and Hair Protection

The Mistake: You can't stand how you look in a hat.

That means your scalp is at risk. Sure, your hair offers some protection (more if it's thick), but your part is likely to get fried. Rub sunscreen into exposed areas, advises Dr. Northington. Keep in mind, however, that a hat with a brim all the way around is the best defense, says Dr. Rigel. "For every inch of brim, you reduce your lifetime risk of skin cancer by 10 percent," he explains.

Don't Fry Your Hair!

Spend the day outside without turning your locks to straw, thanks to a new arsenal of products that shield hair from harsh UV rays. Phyto Plage Protective Sun Veil ($20), Samy Colorcare Protecting Spray ($5.99), and Redken UV Rescue Recovery Treat ($14.95) banish brittleness and leave tresses soft and shiny.

10. Shade Protection

The Mistake: You skip the sunscreen because you sit under an umbrella with a T-shirt over your suit.

Shade doesn't totally protect you. "Sand and water reflect the sun's rays -- probably as much as 50 to 90 percent, depending on the angle of the sun and how close you are to the water," says Dr. DeLeo. That's enough to turn your skin a light shade of lobster, especially if you sit outside for several hours.

As for the wet T-shirt, it's not going to win you any contests in this case; it will offer approximately the equivalent of SPF 3, according to Dr. Rigel. In other words, put on sunscreen or reinforce your tee. You can give your clothes an SPF of 30 with a new product called SunGuard, which contains a chemical that blocks UV light. Just add a package to your laundry; one application will provide you with protection for up to 20 washings.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, July 2006.

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