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NOW THATS the idea of blithely catching a few rays at the beach has been dampened by a skin cancer epidemic, the trick is devising a strategy for self-protection. But proper use of sunscreens, a key element of any skin protection program, is harder than it seems, according to a July article in the Los Angeles Times. The confusion has arisen in part because, after decades of debate, the Food and Drug Administration has yet to set standards on sunscreen, the article reported.

Q. I spend a lot of time outside in the sun. What’s the best way to protect myself?

While sunscreen is helpful in shielding from harmful ultraviolet rays, the FDA says that lotions are only one component of sun safety. Another important measure is to avoid the sun during peak hours, 10 A.M. to 3 P.M., and when the UV radiation index (reported daily in most newspapers and on television) is high. People can also protect themselves by wearing broad-brimmed hats, sunglasses, loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts, and pants.

As for sunscreen, a lotion proclaiming broad-spectrum coverage is a good start in fending off both wrinkle-causing UVA rays and burn causing UVB rays, says Joshua L. Fox, a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology. Both kinds of rays may play a role in skin cancer. Ultraviolet radiation comes in a myriad of frequencies, however, and there’s now concern that broad-spectrum lotions aren’t broad enough. For maximum protection from the full UV spectrum, the best products contain zinc oxide, the white ointment many lifeguards put on their noses.

Since few people are willing to cover their bodies with zinc oxide, Fox recommends that fair-skinned patients use a product with a sun protection factor of at least 15; for all-day exposure he recommends an SPF of 30. He also suggests patients apply the lotion 30 minutes before they head outdoors; this gives the ingredients a chance to penetrate the skin.

Both the FDA and the Skin Cancer Foundation prescribe a final step for any skin protection plan: A self-exam for cancers or precancerous condition. “If detected early, all skin cancers, even melanoma, are curable,” says Joyce Ayoub, spokeswoman for the Skin Cancer Foundation. The organization urges family practitioners to make a full-body skin check part of routine examinations. Among the signs to look for are sores that don’t heal, asymmetrical moles, nodules, and scaly patches

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