13 Tips to Prevent Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers
The sun is good to us. It keeps our planet warm and livable, helps grow the food we eat, and allows our bodies to make vitamin D, an essential nutrient. But our beloved sun has a major flaw: It emits harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can damage the DNA in skin cells and increase risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma—the most dangerous type. Over time, big and small exposures to UV rays can really add up. But you’re not powerless. Here’s what top dermatologists recommend doing to minimize your exposure and help prevent skin cancer every day.
Choose Broad-Spectrum SPF 30 or Higher
Not all sunscreen is created equal. Look for one that’s broad-spectrum, water-resistant, and has a sun protection factor (SPF) 30 or higher, says Amanda Wendel, M.D., dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine Central DuPage Hospital in Winfield, IL. Broad-spectrum means it protects against both UVB and UVA rays. Why that matters: All sunscreens protect against UVB rays, which are known for damaging the outermost layer of skin (hello, sunburn!) and causing skin cancer. But UVA rays also contribute to skin cancer and skin aging by penetrating more deeply. Only products that pass rigorous testing can be labeled “broad-spectrum.”
Know the Difference Between Physical and Chemical Barriers
Sunscreens fall into two categories depending on their active ingredients: chemical or physical. Chemical sunscreens include ingredients like oxybenzone and/or avobenzone and work by absorbing the sun’s rays. Physical sunscreens include zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide and work by deflecting the sun’s rays. As long as the sunscreen is broad-spectrum, you should get adequate sun protection from either type. However, many dermatologists recommend physical over chemical. Why? A recent study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) found we may absorb a potentially dangerous amount of the active ingredients in chemical sunscreen into our bloodstream.
Remember That Any Sunscreen Is Better Than None
More research is needed to confirm whether regular use of chemical sunscreens can cause enough chemical buildup to actually spark health issues. But until that happens, physical sunscreens are the safer choice, says Susan Y. Chon, M.D., dermatologist at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Dr. Wendel is also partial to physical sunscreens, but her recommendation comes with an important caveat: Chemical sunscreens are better than nothing. We may not have the full story on sunscreen ingredients yet, but we do know, without doubt, that UV rays cause skin cancer, she says. “You’re better off wearing any sunscreen than none.”
Learn the Right Way to Apply Sunscreen
Yes, there’s a right and a wrong way to apply sunscreen. And most people are doing it wrong. “Most people don’t apply a thick enough coat,” Dr. Wendel says. “You need one ounce, or a shot-glass full, for your whole body and face.” You also have to reapply regularly. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going outside and then reapplied every two hours and after sweating, swimming, or toweling off. Some sunscreens suggest reapplying more often, so always refer to the instructions on the back of the tube.
Save Spray Sunscreen for Touchups
Spray-on sunscreens are tempting: They’re easy to apply and typically less greasy than lotions. But dermatologists don’t love them. “I always suggest lotion as a base coat and only using spray to reapply,” Dr. Wendel says. It’s much easier to miss spots with a spray sunscreen, especially on a windy day. So, it’s best to make sure you get a really solid coat on with lotion first, and then save the spray for when you’re in a pinch or just need to reapply.
Use Sunscreen Every Single Day
We repeat: every single day. Plenty of people only slather on sun protection when they’re heading to the pool or beach, but for optimal skin cancer prevention, you should apply sunscreen to all exposed skin every single day, Dr. Wendel says. “Put some on your face, the neck area, and the backs of your hands if you’re going to be driving.” If you’re going to be outside with a lot of skin exposed, you’ll need to be more diligent than if you’ll be sitting in a windowless office all day.
Cover Up When You Can
“Clothing is the absolute best and safest sun protection,” Dr. Wendel says. Unlike sunscreen, you don’t have to worry about applying it correctly or whether you sweated it off. Dr. Wendel suggests wearing a wide-brimmed hat that’s big enough to cover your ears and the sides of your neck (ideally) and a loose-fitting shirt that covers as much of your shoulders and neck as possible. It doesn’t have to be specially rated for sun protection, she adds. Just opt for tightly woven fabric that’s lightweight. If you hold the shirt up to the light and you can see light through it, it’s probably not tightly woven enough. Hot tip: Dark colors pass this test easier.
Consider Your Commute
Even if you work indoors, you’re still exposing your skin on your commute, whether you’re driving in a car or walking outside, Dr. Chon says. “There’s a lot of low-level exposure that adds up to increase risk of skin cancer and skin aging.” While most car windows block UVB rays, they usually block a smaller amount of UVA rays, according to the American Cancer Society. So even though you won’t feel a sunburn coming on, your skin could still be getting damaged. “Applying sunscreen to exposed areas can help reduce that low-level exposure,” Dr. Chon says.
Strategically Plan Outdoor Activities
UV intensity peaks midday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so try to plan outdoors time before or after that window. “I tell people to try not to run during their lunch hour. Instead, do it early in the morning or later in the day,” Dr. Wendel says “It definitely makes a difference if you do it every day.” Planning a picnic lunch? Seek out some shade and remember: Protective clothing and sunscreen are your best friends.
Protect Your Skin on Cloudy Days
No, you aren’t free to skip SPF and sun-safe clothing just because it’s cloudy. “A lot of UV rays still penetrate through cloud coverage,” Dr. Chon says. “You might not get burned as fast or as badly on a cloudy day, but you’re still getting UV exposure.” She suggests still wearing sunscreen or covering up exposed skin to minimize these small exposures. Again, lots and lots of small exposures to UV rays add up over time and contribute to skin damage and skin cancer risk.
Be Extra Careful in Snow and on Water
Not-so-fun fact: UV rays can reflect off surfaces like water and snow and intensify your sun exposure. Same goes for sand, pavement, and even grass, according to the American Cancer Society. Who knew?! So while you should be thinking about protecting yourself against UV rays every day, you’ll want to be extra diligent if you’re out on the slopes or enjoying water sports.
Skip Indoor Tanning Beds
This may be a no-brainer these days, but it’s still worth mentioning: Indoor tanning beds are a huge no-no if you want to prevent skin cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing melanoma by 20% and other skin cancers by anywhere from 29% to 67%, depending on the type of cancer. Plus, it ages your skin quicker, leading to wrinkles, age spots, and loss of firmness earlier than if you stick to self-tanner for that “sun-kissed” glow.
Don't Substitute Makeup With SPF for Sunscreen
Makeup with SPF should never replace actual sunscreen—it’s usually not SPF 30 and even if it is, you’re probably not slathering on enough to provide sufficient protection. But makeup can be a bonus layer of sun protection, Dr. Wendel says. She suggests putting on plain sunscreen first, then face makeup, and then topping it off with a tinted powder with SPF or something similar that you can easily reapply throughout the day. Of course, if you’re going to be outside, you’ll also need to regularly reapply your sunscreen.
- UV Rays and Melanoma: American Cancer Society. (2019). “What Causes Melanoma Skin Cancer?” cancer.org/cancer/melanoma-skin-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/what-causes.html
- Sunscreen Facts and Application: American Academy of Dermatology Association. (n.d.). “How to Decode Sunscreen Labels.” aad.org/public/everyday-care/sun-protection/sunscreen/understand-sunscreen-labels
- UV Radiation Facts: Skin Cancer Foundation. (2019). “UV Radiation & Your Skin.” skincancer.org/risk-factors/uv-radiation/
- Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreen: JAMA Network. (2019). “Effect of Sunscreen Application Under Maximal Use Conditions on Plasma Concentration of Sunscreen Active Ingredients.” jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/article-abstract/2733085
- Car Windows: American Cancer Society. (2019). “How Do I Protect Myself from Ultraviolet (UV) Rays?” cancer.org/healthy/be-safe-in-sun/uv-protection.html
- Snow and Water: American Cancer Society. (2019). “Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation.” cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/uv-radiation.html
- Tanning Beds: American Academy of Dermatology Association. (2018). “10 Surprising Facts About Indoor Tanning.” aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/surprising-facts-about-indoor-tanning