Remember when a bright sun in a blue sky was a call to action? Swimming! Tennis! Lying on the grass! That was before we knew what slathering on baby oil and sizzling all day did to you. But now what to do with the fact that themost common type of cancer in the U.S. is skin cancer and most cases are associated with sun exposure? The short answer is, be smart about it.
"I try not to discourage outdoor activities," says Casey Gallagher, dermatologist at Boulder Valley Center for Dermatology in Boulder, Colorado. "Instead, I tell my patients to always apply sunscreen to their face and hands every morning and plan outdoor activities for the early morning and evening as much as possible."
And when that's not possible, the truth is, there are many ways to protect yourself from the sun's harmful UV rays -- even while you're enjoying its warmth and crucial vitamin D. "My attitude toward the sun is the same as raising kids -- you do the best you can," says David E. Bank, a dermatologist in Mt. Kisco, New York. "I don't harangue patients if they get a little color and they were outside doing fun things. You have to view life as a whole." With that in mind, here's a guide to a safe, sunny summer.
You garden, you play outside with your kids, you picnic. All good things as long as you know your skin -- and how it reacts to the sun. The fairer you are, the more at risk you are of getting burned. You'll know this if you pass tan and go directly to burn and blister. "If you're really fair, find the highest SPF number you can -- like 45 or even 60," says Michele S. Green, a New York City dermatologist.
And people with a personal or family history of skin cancer should use extreme caution -- and cover up -- when outdoors. "If you have a history of melanoma in your family, you're at risk of getting it yourself," says Vermen M. Verallo-Rowell, clinical and research dermatologist in San Francisco.
In fact, while most skin cancers are caused solely by sun exposure, having a parent or sibling who had melanoma (the deadliest kind) means you have a 50 percent greater chance of developing it, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Regardless of family history, always keep an eye on your skin and see a dermatologist right away if you see any changes in moles or freckles. Many insurance policies will cover annual skin cancer screenings.
When it comes to sunscreen, more is more.
Looking for a rule of thumb? Apply early and often. That means putting it on 20-30 minutes before you're going to be in the sun.
If you're outdoors: reapply every two hours or after you've been in water, whichever comes first. Use a broad-spectrum water-resistant UVA- and UVB-protecting sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 on all exposed skin. Or opt for a physical blocker with products that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which form an invisible barrier against UV rays.
Don't worry -- the days of white-nosed lifeguards are over. Today these products go on like any other sunscreen.) You can also try longer-lasting sunblocks with Helioplex (found in some Neutrogena products) or Mexoryl (found in some L'Oréal or Kiehl's products).
Both compounds preserve sunscreen's UV-protecting abilities, although doctors say you still need to follow the same old reapplication rules. And regardless of which kind of sunblock you're using, you need to lay it on thick -- about as much as would fit in a shot glass or in the palm of a cupped hand.
If you're concerned that limiting your sun time will rob you of D, the vitamin du jour, don't be. The sun-borne nutrient is key to keeping bones strong and may play a role in preventing heart disease and various forms of cancer, but it turns out 15 minutes of peak sun three times a week is all you need to help avoid a vitamin D deficiency. And unless you're a champion applier, most of us don't regularly use so much sunscreen that it blocks vitamin D synthesis.
If you're still concerned, ask your physician to check your vitamin D levels next time she draws blood. Then, if you're truly low on vitamin D, consider taking supplements (800 to 1,000 IUs is generally considered safe) or eating more vitamin D-enriched foods such as fortified breakfast cereals, milk, and eggs, as well as fatty fish like salmon and sardines.
Frustrating but true: Window glass and clouds are no protection from UV rays. (And 80 percent of UV rays penetrate clouds.) That's why you need sunscreen even if you're just driving in a car or sitting at a desk near a window.
The UV index is an indication of how strong a given day's UV rays are, and if it's 3 or higher, protect yourself (find out your area's daily index at epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html). "If you don't see a long shadow from the sun, you need more protection -- and it doesn't matter if it's cloudy or sunny," says Karrie Fairbrother, R.N., spokeswoman for the Dermatology Nurses' Association.
Even if you haven't always applied yourself to sun protection, give yourself a break and get on it. "It's never too late to protect your skin," says Karrie Fairbrother, R.N., spokeswoman for the Dermatology Nurses' Association. "The skin does repair itself some and it does rejuvenate." So, while you won't be able to erase your lifetime radiation exposure, you will see positive changes as you protect your skin more. Find ways to make it easy.
Shop for a moisturizer that contains SPF and you'll save a step (but if you're using two separate products, always apply your SPF first and then apply your moisturizer on top). Consider using makeup with SPF protection, including foundations and lipsticks.
Another tip: Store a tube of sunscreen and a hat with a brim in your car, in case you decide to take a spontaneous walk, suggests Casey Gallagher, dermatologist at Boulder Valley Center for Dermatology in Boulder, Colorado. And instead of dwelling on past sunburns or the fact that you forgot to apply sunscreen yesterday, get right back to your sunscreen regimen today.