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Sunscreen and skin cancer prevention: 9 common mistakes

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sunscreen.jpgFor many of us, summertime means time outdoors by the pool or at the beach. But while you probably already know to use sunscreen to help protect your family from skin cancer, including melanoma, it turns out that many of us aren't using sunscreen correctly.

That's the word from Dennis Hughes, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of Pediatrics. Below, he shares nine things about sunscreen and skin cancer that may surprise you.

1. Your family probably isn't using enough sunscreen.
The biggest trouble people get into with sunscreen is not using enough and missing spots. You should be covering every part of your body exposed to the sun with sunscreen, including your ears, back of your neck and toes.

The average adult should use one ounce of sunscreen per application. That means the bottle should be gone within a few applications.

A family of four should use one bottle of sunscreen on vacation in two days. But most only use 1.5 bottles of sunscreen per year. 

2. Sunscreen doesn't start working until 30 minutes after you apply it.
Most sunscreens don't hit their maximum protection until 30 minutes after you apply them.

I tell my patients and families to put on the first coating of sunscreen before they put on their swimsuits. My school-aged kids get their sunscreen applied in the parking lot before they're dropped off for school.

3. Spray sunscreens may not provide enough protection.
When using a spray, many people don't apply enough sunscreen. The skin you wish to protect must get wet. Just spraying likely isn't enough.

It's best to rub in the sunscreen into your skin after spraying it on. If you spray and don't rub in it, it won't work very effectively. 

4. Applying sunscreen should be a daily habit. 
Developing a habit of daily sunscreen use is far more effective than using sunscreen only when it's sunny outside or when you're expecting sun exposure. The sun's UV rays can still cause skin damage or burns even on a cloudy day. 

So, make applying sunscreen each morning a habit -- just like brushing your teeth. 

5. Sunscreen doesn't protect all day.
Even if you're wearing a high SPF sunscreen, you need to reapply it every two hours. If you're swimming or sweating, reapply sunscreen even more often. No sunscreen is truly waterproof.

If you've got kids, involve them in applying sunscreen. They'll be more likely to want to apply it and to remember to do so themselves. We learn sun safety in childhood, so it's important to teach our kids the importance of protecting their skin at a young age. 

6. Higher SPF doesn't mean more protection.
No sunscreen provides 100% protection from the sun. SPF 30 provides 97% protection, SPF 50 provides 98% and SPF 100 provides 99%. In other words, you're not really benefiting from using anything over SPF 30.

The more effective way to protect yourself is to also seek shade, wear sun-protective clothing (including a hat that covers year ears) and sunglasses with UV protection and avoid being outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's UV rays are most harmful.

7. Your sunscreen can go bad.
The FDA requires that sunscreens retain their original effectiveness for at least three years. Anything past that isn't guaranteed. So, check the expiration date, and throw out anything over three years old.

Also, don't leave your sunscreen in a hot environment like your car. The chemicals will degrade at high heat, making it ineffective.

8. Even dark-skinned people need sunscreen and sun protection.
No skin type is completely safe from sun damage and skin cancer. In Houston, we see plenty of Hispanics with melanoma. Anyone can get skin cancer, no matter your age or skin color.

9. The best type of sunscreen is one you'll actually use.
There's lots of talk about what ingredients to look for or avoid in sunscreens. But ultimately, you should first find sunscreens that have been approved by the FDA and then find one that feels good and that you'll actually use and reapply often.

2 Comments

What does sunscreen do to our ability to absorb Vitamin D?

Hi, Harriet.

Our doctors say you should absorb enough vitamin D through your daily comings and goings, as well as through certain foods in your diet. You can read more about vitamin D and skin protection here: http://www.mdanderson.org/publications/focused-on-health/issues/2011-may/vitamind.html

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