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See where you fall in protecting your skin from sun damage and potentially skin cancer.
By Allison Van Dusen
Sure you slather on SPF 15 each day and up it to 30 once swimsuit season rolls around.
But if you’re like most, your number is woefully low when it comes to protecting your skin from sun damage and potentially skin cancer.
Only 35% of the public scored above average on a recent American Academy of Dermatology national poll, which measured people’s sun smarts.
The “Rays: Your Grade” survey polled 3,342 respondents, 50% men and 50% women, in 32 U.S. metropolitan regions covering 29 states during February. Locations were ranked based on residents’ answers to 17 questions testing their knowledge, attitudes and behaviors regarding tanning and sun protection.
Not surprisingly many of the high-ranking cities– Miami, Tampa, Los Angeles and Dallas–feel the warmth of the sun year-round and have strong public awareness campaigns.
But despite their more variable climates, Washington, D.C. and New York City topped the list in sun smarts. Dr. Sandra Read, former president of the Washington D.C. Dermatological Society and spokeswoman for the American Academy of Dermatology, said that’s because the areas have highly educated and motivated patient populations.
“They hear something on NPR while they’re driving to my office,” Read says, “and they say, ‘Tell me about that.’ ”
The places at the bottom of the list–those determined to be the least sun savvy–include Pittsburgh, Maine and Chicago.
About 49% of Chicago residents said they believe that given their skin type they don’t have to worry about sun exposure, and 59% said they thought getting a base tan is a healthy way to protect skin from sun damage. Neither is true.
“My first line of defense is–if you lived in Chicago in our crazy weather, you’d want to be in the sun too,” says Dr. Carolyn Jacob of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology and an associate clinical instructor in dermatology at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
Chicago is also a city full of young people who think, like many elsewhere, having a tan makes you look good, Jacob says. They just haven’t seen the damage it’s causing yet.
Ask a dermatologist about the mistakes people make when it comes to protecting their skin from the sun and you’ll get an earful. No matter where you live, they say, you’ve probably got some room for improvement.
Dr. Joshua Fox, founder and director of Advanced Dermatology and The Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery in New York, says even before sunscreen the first step is avoiding the sun, particularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Instead of going to the beach at midday, why not wait until the late afternoon?
And don’t be fooled by talk about how avoiding the sun will lead to a vitamin D deficiency. Most people get more than enough vitamin D through their diets, but if not, a five-minute walk will do the trick, Jacob says.
If you are in the sun, wear protective clothing or at least hats and bathing suits with more rather than less coverage. Minnesota-based retailer Coolibar, for instance, sells clothing and beach gear with an ultraviolet protection factor of 50+, meaning they protect against ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B waves.
To choose the right sunscreen, Dr. Coyle Connolly, president of New Jersey-based medical esthetic clinic Connolly Skin Care, recommends people see a dermatologist, who can suggest the best product for oily, dry or sensitive skin, and your lifestyle.
Beyond checking the SPF value, look for a label that promises UVA protection since SPF indicates sun protection only from UVB rays. Good ingredients to look for include avobenzone, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Neutrogena has new products containing Helioplex, a complex that stabilizes avobenzone, which breaks down in sunlight. L’Oreal sells sunscreen made with Mexoryl SX, a filter that’s protective against short UVA waves.
And a number of sunscreens also now contain antioxidants, which can protect the body from the damaging effect free radicals, a byproduct of exposure to ultraviolet light.
Whatever you choose, make sure you’re applying a shot glass worth and reapplying about every two hours. Fox says your bottle should not last you the whole summer. People also commonly interpret a higher SPF to indicate more effective sun protection, when it only refers to how much longer you can withstand sun exposure vs. no protection. SPF values don’t take into account the fact that you’re sweating or wiping off sunscreen with a towel either.
Dr. Arielle Kauvar, associate professor of dermatology at the New York University School of Medicine, says people should always wear a minimum of SPF 15 with UVA protection, no matter the climate, since UVA exposure is year-round. UVA rays cause 90% of the changes we identify as signs of aging, such as brown spots, dull and sagging skin, and wrinkles, Kauvar says. If you need a reason to avoid them, tanning salons are known for using beds that emit primarily UVA rays.
“We’re hoping if people aren’t worried about skin cancer,” she says, “at least they understand that this sun exposure is what’s making them wrinkled.”
After The Damage Is Done
There are steps you can take to care for your skin post-sunbathing. While there’s no proof you’ll be able to prevent melanoma, you might regenerate your skin’s appearance.
If your burn is fresh, experts recommend taking an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen to help with the pain and avoiding sun exposure. Within a day, consider calling your dermatologist to see if it’s possible to get a treatment like GentleWaves, which delivers low-intensity light energy to boost collagen and reduce sun damage, fine lines and wrinkles. In less than a minute an $80 to $150 application treats the whole face, says Dr. David McDaniel, director of the Institute of Anti-Aging Research in Virginia Beach, Va.
After the fact, creams like Retin-A and products containing Alpha Hydroxy Acids can combat wrinkles and sun damaged skin, Jacob says. There are also prescription medications, such as Efudex, that can treat the earliest stages of squamous cell carcinoma, says Kauvar. Deep laser peels and microdermabrasion are other options.
The key is to talk to your doctor, and while you’re at it, get a skin examination once a year. More than 54% of the adults surveyed by the American Academy of Dermatology said they’d never been screened for skin cancer by a health care provider.
And if you keep spending time in the sun, don’t be surprised by the results.
“If you’re swimming with sharks,” Connolly says, “you’ll get bit every now and then.”