- Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection
- What is skin cancer?
- What is ultraviolet (UV) radiation?
- Are some people more likely to get sun damage?
- How do I protect myself from UV rays?
- What about tanning pills and other tanning products?
- Skin exams
- What should I look for?
- What if I find something suspicious?
- Additional resources
How do I protect myself from UV rays?
You don’t have to avoid sunlight completely, and it would be unwise to reduce your level of activity by avoiding the outdoors, because physical activity is important for good health. But too much sunlight can be harmful. There are some steps you can take to limit your exposure to UV rays.
Some people think about sun protection only when they spend a day at the lake, beach, or pool. But sun exposure adds up day after day, and it happens every time you are in the sun.
Simply staying in the shade is one of the best ways to limit your UV exposure. If you are going to be in the sun, “Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap” is a catch phrase that can help you remember some of the key steps you can take to protect yourself from UV rays:
- Slip on a shirt.
- Slop on sunscreen.
- Slap on a hat.
- Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and sensitive skin around them.
An obvious but very important way to limit your exposure to UV light is to avoid being outdoors in direct sunlight too long. This is particularly important between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm, when UV light is strongest. If you are unsure about the strength of the sun’s rays, use the shadow test: if your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun’s rays are the strongest, and it is important to protect yourself.
UV rays reach the ground all year, even on hazy days, but the strength of UV rays can be different based on the time of year and other factors. The UV rays become more intense in the spring, even before temperatures get warmer. People in some areas may get sunburned when the weather is still cool because they may not think about protecting themselves if it’s not hot out. Be especially careful on the beach or in areas with snow because sand, water, and snow reflect sunlight, increasing the amount of UV radiation you receive. UV rays can also reach below the water’s surface, so you can still get a burn even if you’re in the water and feeling cool.
Some UV rays can also pass through windows. Typical car, home, and office windows block most of the UVB rays but a smaller portion of UVA rays, so even if you don’t feel you’re getting burned your skin may still get some damage. Tinted windows help block more UVA rays, but this depends on the type of tinting. UV radiation that comes through windows probably doesn’t pose a great risk to most people unless they spend long periods of time close to a window that receives direct sunlight.
If you plan to be outdoors, you may want to check the UV Index for your area first. The UV Index usually can be found in local newspaper, TV, radio, and online forecasts. It is also available on the EPA’s web site at www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html and in a variety of smartphone apps.
Protect your skin with clothing
When you are out in the sun, wear clothing to protect as much skin as possible. Clothes provide different levels of UV protection, depending on many factors. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, or long skirts cover the most skin and are the most protective. Dark colors generally provide more protection than light colors. A tightly woven fabric protects better than loosely woven clothing. Dry fabric is generally more protective than wet fabric.
Be aware that covering up doesn’t block out all UV rays. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too.
Some companies now make clothing that is lightweight, comfortable, and protects against UV exposure even when wet. It tends to be more tightly woven, and some have special coatings to help absorb UV rays. These sun-protective clothes may have a label listing the UV protection factor (UPF) value – the level of protection the garment provides from the sun’s UV rays (on a scale from 15 to 50+). The higher the UPF, the higher the protection from UV rays. Some children’s swimsuits are now made from sun-protective fabric and are designed to cover the child from the neck to the knees.
Newer products, which are used in the washing machine like laundry detergents, can increase the UPF value of clothes you already own. They add a layer of UV protection to your clothes without changing the color or texture. This can be useful, but it’s not exactly clear how much it adds to protecting you from UV rays, so it is still important to follow the other steps listed here.
A sunscreen is a product that you apply to your skin for protection against the sun’s UV rays. But it’s important to know that sunscreen does not provide total protection against all UV rays. Therefore, a sunscreen should not be used as a way to prolong your time in the sun. Even with proper sunscreen use, some rays get through, which is why using other forms of sun protection is also important.
Sunscreens are available in many forms – lotions, creams, ointments, gels, sprays, wipes, and lip balms, to name a few.
Some cosmetics, such as lipsticks and foundations, also are considered sunscreen products if they contain sunscreen. Some makeup contains sunscreen, but only the label can tell you. Makeup, including lipstick, without sunscreen does not provide sun protection. Check the labels to find out.
Read the labels
When choosing a sunscreen product, be sure to read the label before you buy. Sunscreens with broad spectrum protection (against UVA and UVB rays) and with sun protection factor (SPF) values of 30 or higher are recommended. The SPF number is the level of protection the sunscreen provides against UVB rays − a higher number means more protection.
When using an SPF 30 sunscreen and applying it thickly, you get the equivalent of 1 minute of UVB rays for each 30 minutes you spend in the sun. So, 1 hour in the sun wearing SPF 30 sunscreen is the same as spending 2 minutes totally unprotected. People often do not apply enough sunscreen, so the actual protection they get is less.
Sunscreens labeled with SPFs as high as 100+ are now available. Higher numbers do mean more protection, but many people do not understand the SPF scale. SPF 15 sunscreens filter out about 93% of UVB rays, while SPF 30 sunscreens filter out about 97%, SPF 50 sunscreens about 98%, and SPF 100 about 99%. The higher you go, the smaller the difference becomes. No sunscreen protects you completely. Regardless of the SPF, sunscreen should be reapplied often for maximal protection.
The SPF number indicates protection against UVB rays only. Sunscreen products labeled “broad-spectrum” provide some protection against both UVA and UVB rays, but at this time there is no standard system for measuring protection from UVA rays. Products that contain avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide can provide some protection from UVB and most UVA rays.
Check the expiration date on the sunscreen container to be sure it is still effective. Most sunscreen products are effective for at least 2 to 3 years, but after a long time in storage you may need to shake the bottle to remix the sunscreen ingredients.
Some sunscreen products can irritate your skin. Many products claim to be hypoallergenic or dermatologist tested, but the only way to know for sure if a product will irritate your skin is to try it. One common recommendation is to apply a small amount to the soft skin on the inside of your elbow every day for 3 days. If your skin does not turn red or become itchy, the product is probably OK for you.
Be sure to apply the sunscreen properly
Always follow the label directions. Most recommend applying sunscreen generously. When putting it on, pay close attention to your face, ears, neck, arms, and any other areas not covered by clothing. If you’re going to wear insect repellent or makeup, put on the sunscreen first.
Ideally, about 1 ounce of sunscreen (about a palmful) should be used to cover the arms, legs, neck, and face of the average adult. For best results, most sunscreens must be reapplied at least every 2 hours and even more often if you are swimming or sweating. Products labeled “waterproof” may provide protection for at least 80 minutes even when you are swimming or sweating. Products that are “water resistant” may protect for only 40 minutes.
Remember that sunscreen usually rubs off when you towel yourself dry, so you will need to put more on.
Sunless tanning products, such as bronzers and extenders (described in the section, “What about tanning pills and other tanning products?”), give skin a tan or golden color. But unlike sunscreens, these products provide very little protection from UV damage.
Wear a hat
A hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim all around is ideal because it protects areas such as the ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp that are often exposed to intense sun, such as the ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp. A dark, non-reflective underside to the brim can also help lower the amount of UV rays reaching the face from reflective surfaces such as water. A shade cap (which looks like a baseball cap with about 7 inches of fabric draping down the sides and back) also is good, and will provide more protection for the neck. These are often sold in sports and outdoor supply stores.
A baseball cap protects the front and top of the head but not the neck or the ears, where skin cancers commonly develop. Straw hats are not as protective as hats made of tightly woven fabric.
Wear sunglasses that block UV rays
UV-blocking sunglasses are important for protecting the delicate skin around the eyes, as well as the eyes themselves. Research has shown that long hours in the sun without protecting your eyes increase your chances of developing some eye diseases.
The ideal sunglasses should block 99% to 100% of UVA and UVB radiation. Before you buy, check the label to make sure they do. Labels that say “UV absorption up to 400 nm” or “Meets ANSI UV Requirements” mean the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays. Those labeled “cosmetic” block about 70% of UV rays. If there is no label, don’t assume the sunglasses provide any UV protection.
Darker glasses are not necessarily better because UV protection comes from an invisible chemical applied to the lenses, not from the color or darkness of the lenses. Look for an ANSI label.
Large-framed and wraparound sunglasses are more likely to protect your eyes from light coming in from different angles. Children need smaller versions of real, protective adult sunglasses – not toy sunglasses.
Ideally, all types of eyewear, including prescription glasses and contact lenses, should absorb the entire UV spectrum. Some contact lenses are now made to block most UV rays. But because they don’t cover the whole eye and surrounding areas, they are not sufficient eye protection when used alone.
Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps
Many people believe the UV rays of tanning beds are harmless. This is not true. Tanning lamps give out UVA and usually UVB rays as well. Both UVA and UVB rays can cause long-term skin damage, and can contribute to skin cancer. Tanning bed use has been linked with an increased risk of melanoma, especially if it is started before the age of 30. Most skin doctors and health organizations recommend not using tanning beds and sun lamps.
If you want a tan, one option is to use a sunless tanning lotion, which can provide a darker look without the danger (see the section, “What about tanning pills and other tanning products?”).
Protect children from the sun
Children need special attention, since they tend to spend more time outdoors, can burn more easily, and may not be aware of the dangers. Parents and other caregivers should protect children from excess sun exposure by using the steps above. Older children need to be cautioned about sun exposure as they become more independent. It is important, particularly in parts of the world where it is sunnier, to cover your children as fully as is reasonable. You should develop the habit of using sunscreen on exposed skin for yourself and your children whenever you go outdoors and may be exposed to large amounts of sunlight. If you or your child burns easily, be extra careful to cover up, limit exposure, and apply sunscreen.
Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct sunlight and protected from the sun using hats and protective clothing. Sunscreen may be used on small areas of exposed skin only if adequate clothing and shade are not available.
A word about sun exposure and vitamin D
Doctors are learning that vitamin D has many health benefits. It might even help lower the risk for some cancers. Your skin makes vitamin D naturally when you are in the sun. How much vitamin D you make depends on many things, including how old you are, how dark your skin is, and how strong the sunlight is where you live.
At this time, doctors aren’t sure what the optimal level of vitamin D is. A lot of research is being done in this area. Whenever possible, it is better to get vitamin D from your diet or vitamin supplements rather than from sun exposure because dietary sources and vitamin supplements do not increase risk for skin cancer, and are typically more reliable ways to get the amount you need.
Last Medical Review: 09/20/2012
Last Revised: 01/25/2013