Get Smart About the Sun
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Get Smart About the Sun

You work out, skip the foam on your latte, and snack on veggies. But if you're like two-thirds of us, you skip the sunscreen every day, even though it's the simplest way to prevent skin cancer. It's not too late to start! Skin cancer is very preventable, and you can lower your chances right now with our easy three-step guide.

Step 1: Face the Facts About Skin Cancer

There are plenty of myths about skin cancer and sun protection -- and we love it when you write and e-mail us your questions. Here, the answers to all those toughies. (And keep 'em coming!)

"Most sun damage is done when we're kids, right?"

Not necessarily. That information was based on a misinterpreted study from the '80s. We actually get less than 25 percent of our total sun exposure by age 18, according to new research. Each 20-year period after that averages another 25 percent -- so adopting new, healthy skin habits now can literally save your life.

"Isn't indoor tanning safer than baking in the sun?"

No! That misconception lures more than a million people -- 71 percent of them women under 30 -- to tanning salons every day. High-pressure bulbs in tanning beds emit as much as 12 times the UVA the sun does, increasing your risk of melanoma by 75 percent if you started indoor tanning before age 35. The only safe tan comes from a bottle. Tell that to your bronze-seeking girlfriends; scarily, 38 percent say they endure the discomfort of a sunburn to get color, according to a survey by Kelton Research and Jergens.

"Do I really need to wear sunscreen 365 days a year?"

Yep. Slather it on every inch of exposed skin every single day. For the record, SPF foundation doesn't count (you don't use enough of it for protection), so layer it on top of sunscreen. Heading to the beach? Apply SPF from head to toe before suiting up (swimsuits can shift, revealing unprotected skin). Then reapply every 80 minutes or immediately after swimming, says Robert A. Weiss, MD, president of the American Society for Dermatologic Surgery.

"What should I look for in a sunscreen?"

First scan the label for the words "broad spectrum" and check the ingredient list for sun blockers zinc oxide and titanium dioxide -- all indications that your formula shields you from UVA and UVB, the two types of skin cancer-causing rays. The SPF level (shoot for at least 30) measures a product's ability to protect only against UVB, which leads to burns. But you need a sunscreen that also filters UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into skin, resulting in wrinkles and age spots.

"I have a lot of moles. Am I more at risk?"

Normal moles (small brown spots or growths) are generally benign -- but having more than 50 does up your risk for melanoma. Atypical ones increase your chances for skin cancer too. Every month, look for new spots and moles that have changed in shape, size, or color, says Dr. Weiss. (A good way to remember: Do it with your breast self-exam.) Go into a well-lit area like a bathroom and give the front of your body a thorough once-over. Feel your skin as you examine it; suspicious spots can be flesh-toned but scaly. Next, use a full-length mirror to scan your back side. Spend extra time on your scalp (part your hair to get a good view), neck, and shoulders, and don't forget your underarms, palms and soles, and the insides of your fingers and toes. Finally, use a hand mirror to check hard-to-see areas. In rare cases, melanoma can be genetic and unrelated to UV exposure.

"How will I know if a spot is suspicious?"

Consult our photo guide (above). And remember these ABCDE signs of skin cancer:

A = asymmetrical shape
B = border; jagged or blurry edges are suspect
C = color; two or more shades within a mole is bad news
D = diameter; moles greater than one-quarter inch (about the size of a pencil eraser) may indicate a problem
E = evolving; any mole that changes size, shape, or color is suspicious.

Find any of these? See a dermatologist (find one at right away.

"I've never had a skin check; what should I expect?"

Your appointment with your derm should take no more than 15 minutes. After discussing your family and sun history, the doctor will use a magnifying lens to examine your entire body. (You can remove all your clothes or leave on your bra and underwear.) If she sees something suspicious, she'll probably do one of two things: take a photo of the lesion and measure it (both allow her to keep track of its growth) or biopsy it, removing all or part of the spot, and send it to a lab for analysis. (You'll get results in a week or two.)

Consistency is key to staying healthy, so check your own skin each month -- and don't forget to book your doc appointment for the next year. Put an electronic reminder in your PDA, or schedule it for around the same time as your annual ob-gyn exam.

Step 2: Protect These Key Spots

Every inch of you is vulnerable to skin cancer, but certain areas are at higher risk. When applying SPF, use a palm-size dose from head to toe and pay special attention to these body parts.

Left side of the face

UVA rays can penetrate glass, so driving a car puts this half in greater danger. If you're more likely to be a passenger, the reverse is true.
Tip: Apply a high-level SPF (30 or more) all over your face before a long drive -- and be sure to touch up during pit stops.


It's the leading area for facial skin cancers.
Tip: Spending more than a few minutes outdoors? Apply a double dose of sunscreen to your schnozz.


Melanomas found here are deadlier than anywhere else on the body. Docs think it's because they're detected later, since hair can hide them.
Tip: Wear a hat and use a light aerosol sunscreen on your part and hairline.


These are a hot spot for actinic keratoses, precancers that often turn into squamous cell carcinoma.
Tip: A sunscreen stick makes it easy to shield these often-overlooked areas. A wide-brimmed hat adds protection.


Melanomas are more common here in women than men, probably because women want tanned legs and are likely to skimp on -- or skip -- sunscreen.
Tip: Rely on self-tanner, not the sun, for color, and top it with sunscreen.

Lower Lip

Unlike the upper, it's not shaded from UV rays by the nose.
Tip: Use an SPF-rich balm or lipstick on your entire mouth. Avoid glosses; their shine may attract UV rays.


Summer sandals and flip-flops leave them more exposed.
Tip: When applying sunscreen, be sure to cover your feet thoroughly, including on and around your toes.


Sources: Craig Austin, MD, assistant clinical professor at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City; Dennis Gross, MD, New York City-based dermatologist and author of Your Future Face

Step 3: Choose the Right Sunscreens

FITNESS tested the latest formulas during sweat-dripping runs, high-noon weddings, and daylong barbecues to bring you these best buys.

Best For: Extra Protection
Supergoop! SPF 30 Bug-Away Spray ($16, has lemongrass to fend off pests and UV-fighting Parsol 1789 to keep skin safe.

Best For: Working Out
Neutrogena Ultimate Sport Sunblock Spray SPF 70+ ($9.99, drugstores) creates a netting-like layer that binds Helioplex, a UVA-shielding ingredient, as well as UVB filters, to sweaty skin.

Best For: Faces
La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 ($27.50, feels like a light serum. The quick-dry SPF 60 formula leaves skin silky within seconds.

Best For: Bodies
Rite Aid Rx Suncare Advanced Protection SPF 30 ($8.49, hydrates skin and provides complete UV protection.

Best For: Small Spots
Clinique SPF 45 Targeted Protection Stick ($17.50, is ideal for ears, noses, and lips, which absorb the brunt of UV rays. Plus, it stores easily in your purse.

Makeup Multitaskers

Top your SPF with these UV-shielding cosmetics.

  • Clarins Instant Light Bronzing Powder SPF 15 ($36, department stores). Swipe it over your forehead, nose and cheekbones for a glow.
  • Neutrogena Nourishing Eye Quad in Moonlit Violet ($9.99, drugstores). It's the first powder eye-shadow kit with SPF 15.
  • Jane Iredale Powder-Me SPF ($44, Natural titanium dioxide gives this mineral face powder SPF 30 power.

Originally published in FITNESS magazine, June 2009.