Q. What role does sun exposure play in the development of skin cancer?
A. The number one cause of skin cancer is ultraviolet, or UV radiation from the sun. However, UV light from tanning beds is equally dangerous.
Q. Who needs sun protection and who is most at risk for skin cancer?
A. No one is immune from skin cancer, but people who have fair skin that burns easily, light eyes and blond or red hair are at greatest risk. Darker skinned individuals should never consider themselves safe in the sun, although their risk is lower.
Family and personal history of skin cancer should also be considered. And anyone who works outdoors or lives in an especially sunny area is at risk. Finally, a history of severe sunburns — even if they occurred a long time ago — as well as a large number of irregularly shaped moles can be risk factors for melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer.
Q. When do I need to protect myself from the sun’s rays?
A. Sun protection is important all year round, and UV rays can damage skin during any season or temperature, and even when there is a cloud cover. That means it is best to use at least an SPF 15 sunscreen even if you’re only going out to walk the dog.
That said, in the United States, UV rays are generally the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. in spring and early summer. It is best to avoid sun exposure during those hours, and if that is impossible, use sunscreen, reapply liberally, and cover up with broad brim hats or special sun protective clothing.
And don’t forget that reflective surfaces like water, sand, snow, and cement can exacerbate the effects of UV rays. In short, if you spend time at the beach, on the slopes, or in the city, you need to be cognizant of sun exposure and its potential damage.
Q: How do I choose the right sunscreen?
A: Always choose a sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, and that offers at least SPF 15. But beyond that, the best sunscreen is the sunscreen you know you will use. There are formula options including lotions, gels, and even powders, as well as sunscreens that are specifically designed for areas of the body such as the face or the scalp, different skin types, and for kids and babies. If you are a swimmer, athlete, or just a very active person, you will need a sunscreen that is waterproof and sweatproof.
Q: Can you demystify “SPF” for me?
A. Sunscreens are assigned a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) number according to their effectiveness in offering protection from UV rays. Higher numbers (above SPF 15) offer greater protection, but don’t assume that using an extremely high SPF (such as 50) means you don’t have to reapply throughout the day.
Q: When should I apply sunscreen?
A: Ideally, you should apply sunscreen thoroughly at least 30 minutes before sun exposure. Follow the manufacturer’s directions regarding reapplication. Even though many sunscreens are water and sweatesistant today, a good rule of thumb is to reapply every two hours during peak sun hours or after swimming or any activity that causes sweating.
Q. Is there any way to un-do previous sun damage?
A. Unfortunately, you can’t undo previous damage, but it is never too late to embrace sun protection. Since sun damage is cumulative, the sooner you stop exposing your skin to harmful rays, the better.