Protect Your Skin from the Sun to Help Prevent Skin Cancer

No matter what the season, it is important that when you go outside remember to protect your body's largest organ: your skin. The sun is a powerful lure, but it's also a source of danger. Its ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes.

"Sun exposure is definitively linked to skin cancer—both the less invasive cancers and melanoma, the most serious skin cancer," says Franz Smith, M.D., a surgical oncologist at Saint Barnabas Medical Center.

Skin Safety Tips for the Summer

Sun safety is important. It only takes a few simple precautions, fortunately, to stay safe from the sun in outdoor summer activities. Below are six ways to help protect yourself and your family

1) Slather on the Sunscreen

"Using sunscreen is critical for protecting your skin," says Dr. Smith. Sunscreen contains chemicals that, when absorbed by the skin, reflect or scatter sunlight's UV rays. Their effectiveness is rated by a number called a sun protection factor (SPF): the higher the number, the more protective the product. "I recommend an SPF 30 sunscreen for everyone," Dr. Smith says. "You generally don't need anything higher, as long as you reapply it every two hours."

Sunscreen works best when you apply it 30 minutes before you go outside. You need it even on slightly cloudy or cool days. Get help for hard-to-reach places like your back. In addition, some cosmetics and lip balms contain some of the same chemicals used in sunscreens. Choose those when possible, but if they have an SPF of no more than 15, supplement them with sunscreen.

2) Dress for Skin Success

"Anyone out in the sun should dress appropriately," Dr. Smith advises. Clothing, especially loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from tightly woven fabric, offers protection from the sun's UV rays. These days some clothing is sold with information from the manufacturer on its "ultraviolet protection factor" (UPF ), a rating of its protective power against these rays.

When you're at the beach, try to wear a T-shirt or a beach cover-up when you aren't in the water. And remember that wet T-shirts are less protective than dry.

Keep your head and face covered as well. You'll get the most protection from a hat with a brim all the way around that shades your face, your ears and the back of your neck. Choose tightly woven fabrics such as canvas in preference to straw hats or other hats with holes that let sunlight through. And if a baseball cap is your preference, take care to protect your ears and the back of your neck by wearing clothing that covers those areas, by using sunscreen with at least SPF 30, and/or by staying in the shade as much as possible.

3) Keep an Eye on Your Eyes

Sunburned eyes are at increased risk for cataracts, so wear sunglasses that protect your eyes from UV rays. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure. Wraparound sunglasses are a great choice, because they block UV rays from sneaking in from the side.

4) Shun the Brightest Sun

"Avoid the peak hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as much as possible," Dr. Smith says. When you are out in the midday sun, you can reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an umbrella, a tree or other shelter.

5) Check It Out

Your skin, that is. "Part of good overall health maintenance is to inspect your skin regularly," says Dr. Smith. Examine your skin during showers and in the mirror for moles that change or look abnormal, and ask a loved one to inspect hard-to see areas such as your back and neck. "Also look at your scalp, especially if you're a man with thinning hair," he says. "That area is often overlooked."

6) Be a Role Model

"Be mindful of children," says the doctor. "Most sun exposure—up to 80 percent, in fact—occurs before age 18. So set a good example for your kids by taking necessary precautions."

Skin Safety Tips for the Winter

The sun may have slipped low in the sky, but that doesn't mean you should put the sunblock away.

"The winter sun can be just as damaging as the summer sun," says Franz Smith, M.D., a surgical oncologist and skin cancer expert at Saint Barnabas Medical Center.

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the U.S., he says, and it is almost always associated with sun exposure.

Spending time outdoors in winter, as skiers, snowboarders, hunters and other winter sports enthusiasts do, puts one at increased risk for overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) radiation. And the higher altitudes that skiers and snowboarders attain increase that risk even more.

UV radiation exposure increases 4 to 5 percent with every 1,000 feet above sea level, says the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF). Also, snow reflects up to 80 percent of the UV light from the sun, so those rays actually hit your skin twice.

Yes, the days are shorter and the temperatures colder, but the basic guidelines for skin safety are the same in winter as in summer.

"The best way to protect your skin is with sunscreen," Dr. Smith says. "I recommend a broad-spectrum product [that is, one that protects against both UVA and UVB rays] with a minimum SPF [sun protection factor] of 15, and it is critical to reapply it every two hours."

Be sure to cover every bit of exposed skin, including the lips (use an SPF lip balm) and the underside of the chin, as well as the ears, neck, scalp and hands, even on cloudy days. (Up to 80 percent of the sun's rays can penetrate clouds, the SCF says.) And don't forget to protect your eyes as well with UV blocking, wraparound sunglasses or goggles.

Even if you're not the outdoorsy type in winter, beware of the year-round danger of tanning beds.

"Despite the fact that they're popular here in New Jersey, they're not without risk," Dr. Smith says. "They've been associated with premature skin aging and an increased incidence of skin cancer."

"Self-tanning" lotions, though, are generally harmless. "You can get the aesthetic appeal without the risk," says the doctor.