As you head outdoors, don’t forget your sun protection: a big floppy hat, sunglasses, and, most important, sunscreen. Just one blistering sunburn can increase your susceptibility to skin cancer—and that’s just the beginning.
“Eighty percent of visible skin aging is caused by sun exposure,” says Cherylanne Devita, PhD, of Devita International. “Sun exposure is cumulative, so damage often manifests many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure. As a result, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. With proper protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation, however, most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.”
Two types of UV radiation are known to cause burning, photoaging, and skin cancer: UVA and UVB light. When sunscreens were originally developed in the 1960s, manufacturers designed them to shield skin from UVB radiation and listed a sun protection factor (SPF) rating that measured relative protection against UVB only. Today, many products contain ingredients that also safeguard skin from UVA radiation. But you’ll need to read the product label to ensure that it offers full-spectrum protection.
Think that you don’t need sunscreen when you’re not on the beach? Think again. “About 70 percent of sun exposure occurs while you’re walking, driving, or getting in and out of your car, so it’s very important to protect your skin by using an SPF every day,” explains Shelley Rubenstein of Nature’s Gate.
Even dark skin needs some protection. “All skin is at risk for sun damage if left exposed for too long, including people with olive, brown, or black skin, who have more melanin than fair-skinned people,” says Jennifer Nevels, ND, at the Southwest Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Although melanin acts as a natural barrier against sun damage, it alone is not sufficient to guard against sun damage.”
SPF is a relative measurement: SPF 2, for example, provides twice the protection that your skin possesses on its own, depending on how much melanin it contains. If your coloring protects your skin for 15 minutes before burning without sunscreen, an SPF 4 allows you to stay in the sun for an hour before you burn (or four times your own natural protection against UVB rays).
Most experts recommend at least SPF 15. But if your skin is fair, use an SPF 30 for boating or beach days, when the sun’s reflection off the water is especially intense. If you don’t like the consistency or feeling of traditional sunscreens for everyday use, look for SPF labeling on moisturizers, body lotions, and makeups.
Sunburn is often the result of inadequate sunscreen application. So whatever SPF you choose, apply sunscreen every two hours if you’re outside, and be sure to do a thorough job of it. “Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen,” explains Dr. David Green, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Howard University in Washington DC. “As a result, they burn even if they are using a high SPF.”
The average person needs 1.5 ounces of sunscreen (approximately a quarter cup) applied every two hours to obtain the SPF value indicated on the product label. Anything less, and you won’t get the full SPF coverage a product offers.
Choose Natural Protection
For additional UV protection, select sunscreens and after-sun products that contain antioxidants. “Antioxidants can be very beneficial in combating sun damage,” says Dr. Devita. “Exposure to sunlight creates free radicals. And antioxidants, because they are free-radical scavengers, can help protect skin from damage.”
Select lotions that contain vitamins C and E, which reduce both the production of sunburn cells and existing UV damage. Vitamin E helps reduce production of cancer-causing cells. Also useful:
Genistein, an extract of soybean with the ability to inhibit skin cancer and photoaging in lab tests
Green tea extract, which has been found to inhibit melanoma cell growth in tests on human tissue and in mice
Pycnogenol, for reducing UV damage
Anti-inflammatory aloe vera, which brings immediate relief to sun-parched skin.
Diet and nutrition play an important role in safeguarding skin from sun damage. Eating foods high in cancer-protective nutrients (such as tomatoes, green tea, and soy) may help.
Research documents the positive effects of vitamin A supplementation, which was found to reduce the formation of squamous cell skin cancer during long-term use. Taking vitamins C and E also protects skin from sun damage.
Risk Factors for Melanoma
Three or more blistering sunburns as a child or teen
Fair skin, hair, or eyes
Three or more summers of intense sun exposure (e.g., working as a lifeguard)
A family history of skin cancer
Diffuse freckling across the back
Actinic keratosis (a precancerous skin condition)
Tanning bed use