Summer Skincare and Sun Protection 101
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Summer Skincare and Sun Protection 101

Welcome to Summer Skincare 101, our definitive guide to protecting your skin for the rest of your life. Complete our lessons and get ready to have (and keep) your healthiest, most beautiful skin ever.

Your Primer for Outdoor Skincare

At this point, the basic lessons of summer skincare should be as easy to recite as the alphabet. Dermatologists have drilled sun smarts into our heads for years, so much that by rote memorization we should know to use sunscreen, avoid the sun during its harshest hours, choose polarized sun glasses, and much more. But if we've been paying attention to our lessons, why is skin cancer consistently the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States?

Consider this a wake-up call -- we're betting there are quite a few important facts and figures about outdoor skincare you don't yet know about. For example, do you know the four most easily sunburned regions of the body? Or how about the idea that most of your skin damage happens before age 18? (Hint: That's a misquote.) And have you ever heard of the "Slip, Slap, Slop" rule?

Pencils out: Get ready to relearn everything you thought you knew about your skin and the sun -- and say goodbye to wrinkles, sun spots, and discoloration. Welcome to what we've dubbed "Summer Skincare 101," a special step-by-step primer to better, healthier, and safer skin this summer. We'll take you through the ABCs (and Ds and Es) of sun damage protection, summer sun safety, and the common myths your doctor hates to hear. Follow the dermatologist-backed lessons, and you're guaranteed to earn an A+ for beautiful, healthy skin that lasts far beyond any report card.

Lesson 1: Sun Damage Is the #1 Cause of Aging

Your skin is a visible reminder of your age -- and any fine lines, crow's-feet, or discoloration that crops up as you age are directly related to sun exposure. It's hands-down the number one cause of aging, says dermatologist Marta Van Beek, MD, of the University of Iowa.

Quick Test: Want proof? Dermatologist Carl Washington, MD, the codirector of the Dermatological Surgical Unit at the Emory Clinic at Emory University, has an easy test. "I tell my patients to look at skin under their breast or under their armpit, and compare it to their face or shoulders. This unexposed skin is usually in great condition -- it shows that it really is the sun that is aging you," he says. "All of your skin is the same age. If it's altered by your diet or other environmental effects, that skin should be the same as the skin on your face or shoulders."

4 Easy-to-Damage "Hot Spots"

Take Note: Exposed skin on the face is easily the most at-risk area for sunburn, followed closely by the shoulders, hands, ears, and neck. If you want to maintain youthful, resilient, wrinkle-free skin, don't skimp! These areas need special daily attention from a bottle of sunscreen. And don't give up if you do see signs of age in these areas already -- instead, amp up your skincare regimen starting now. "It's a misquote that all your major skin damage is already done by the time you reach age 18," said Van Beek. "People live much longer now, and taking care of your skin at any age is never a lost cause. Start today."

Quick Test: How can you tell if you're had too much sun? Just press on the skin, says Marshall Brain, the founder of and author of "How Sunburn and Sun Tans Work." "The extra blood in the capillaries causes the redness," Brain says. "If you press on sunburned skin it will turn white and then return to red as the capillaries refill." If you see this happening, the damage is already done -- but you should still get out of the sun immediately. Avoid this in the future by becoming a sunscreen expert in Lesson 2.

Lesson 2: Better Sunscreen Application

The line between a safe sun exposure and red, painful, sunburned skin is narrow, and Van Beek has seen hundreds of sun-frustrated patients over the years. "They'll constantly tell me, 'I always put on sunscreen, and then I still get burned.'" It's not surprising, she says. Hardly anyone puts on as much sunscreen as they actually need. In her experience, most people put on barely half as much. "Industry tests of sunscreen (which determine its sun-protection value) are done with much more than anyone puts on -- usually gobs and gobs more," says Van Beek.

Take Note: Sunscreen isn't a quick fix. You can still burn even while wearing it. "Sunscreens are filters, not blocks," notes the Photobiology Testing Facility at the University of Sydney in Australia, the self-proclaimed skin cancer capital of the world. (In Australia, 2 out of 3 people suffer some form of skin cancer during their lifetimes, according to the latest estimates.)

How Sunscreen Works: Sunscreens block or absorb the ultraviolet light from the sun. UV rays reach your skin at a rate that depends on the sun protection factor (SPF) listed on the bottle. For example, a sunscreen labeled SPF 30 permits 1/30th of the sunburning energy to hit your skin, versus the time it would take to suffer a minimal sunburn completely unprotected. Given enough time, enough sunburning energy can still penetrate through a sunscreen to burn your skin.

Protect Yourself Outdoors

Memorize these five steps to increase your sunscreen application smarts before moving on to Lesson 3.

  1. Aim high, spread wide. Choose a sunscreen with the highest sun protection factor (SPF) you can find, and use at least a teaspoon-size amount for your face, and around an ounce (generally a palmful) to cover your whole body. "On average you'll get about half the SPF listed on the bottle," said Van Beek. For the best protection, spread the lotion from your ankles to your hairline.
  2. Read the fine print. Most sunscreens advise applying 15-30 minutes before heading out into the sun, and reapplying every hour or two hours. Don't ignore these directions -- if you do, your protection level can drastically drop. Even long-lasting formulas labeled "water-proof" or "sweat-proof" can lose their protective coating on the skin after swimming or sweating.
  3. Check the ingredients. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen (which offers both UVA and UVB protection), and look for ingredients such as avobenzone, titanium dioxide, or zinc oxide. Hate the opacity of thick, white zinc oxide? Look for the newer formulations of micronized titanium dioxide, which offer the same protection levels without the ghostly sheen.
  4. Double-check the expiration date. Plan to buy a new bottle of sunscreen each year (i.e., the sticky bottle stuffed into your glove compartment is probably way past its prime). Don't guess about the protection an old product might provide -- drop a few bucks on a new tube.
  5. Repeat after the Aussies: "Slip, slap, slop." Skin cancer is such a big health problem in Australia that the government-backed skincare slogan "Slip, slap, slop" is a national mantra. Skin-savvy Australians say: "slip" on a shirt, "slop" on sunscreen, and "slap" on a hat. It's catchy (and the American Cancer Society has adopted it too). Plus, you can keep sun safety trendy. Try a wide-brim straw hat --the best have 2 or 3 inches all the way around -- and add polarized sunglasses (even designer shades have this protection now), and your sexy new sarong. And when you can, always grab a seat in the shade.

Lesson 3: Cancer Self-Screening

Self-screening for skin cancer should be a monthly task, according to the American Cancer Society. Take the opportunity to get to know every freckle, bump, and birthmark now, so you can identify any important changes later. And for the record, a normal mole is defined as an evenly colored black, brown, or tan spot on the skin, typically round or oval and flat or slightly raised. Most people have at least a few moles, and usually they're harmless.

Here's what to look for:

For Melanoma Skin Cancer

Know this: Melanoma is the skin cancer that begins in the melanocytes, or the cells that produce melanin (the chemical that darkens your skin in the sun). This type of cancer is curable if caught early, but can be more dangerous than non-melanoma skin cancer.

Protect Yourself: Recite your ABCs...and don't forget D and E

  • A is for Asymmetry. Healthy moles are generally symmetrical in shape. Check carefully for any moles where one half doesn't match the other.
  • B is for Border. Check to make sure the mole's edges aren't irregular, ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • C is for Color. In a potentially cancerous area, the color is lighter is some areas, and can include shades of brown or black, sometimes with red, white, or even blue patches.
  • D is for Diameter. If a spot is larger than 6 millimeters across, close to the size of a pencil eraser, or is growing larger, have it professionally checked.
  • E is for Evolution. Knowing your family's skin cancer history can help access your risk level. Make sure your doctor knows details about any family members with a history of any sort of skin cancer.

For Non-Melanoma (Basal or Squamous) Skin Cancer:

Know this: This type of cancer develops from any skin cell other than melanocytes -- hence the name. Most skin cancers are non-melanomas -- but an oddly shaped mole is typically not an indicator of the problem.

Protect Yourself: Memorize how to identify a potentially cancerous danger spot.

  • Basal Carcinomas: Beware of flat, firm, pale areas of the skin, or raised shiny or waxy-looking areas that can bleed after minor injury. The skin could also have black, brown, or blue areas, or be slightly depressed in the center.
  • Squamous Carcinomas: These can appear as a growing lump with a rough surface, or as a flat, red-tinted patch that grows slowly.

Lesson 4: Sunburn Myths

Chances are high your doctor or dermatologist has heard one of these bogus lines (and probably has a finger-shaking speech prepared on each). Spare yourself the lecture -- we asked Washington and Van Beek for the top sunburn myths they've heard from their patients. Brush up on your own sun-care knowledge with their expert advice.

The Myth: "I've got some Italian in me, so I'm naturally protected from the sun."

The Doctor Says: Sorry -- this assumption is completely false. "When I hear a line like this from my patients, I just say, 'I'm African-American and I can still get skin cancer,'" said Washington. "It is the case that the darker the skin, the better protected -- but no one is immune."

The Bottom Line: "No one is immune." The natural melanin in your body, the chemical responsible for your skin color, will only protect you to a point. Anyone, regardless of their natural skin protection, can damage their skin -- so everyone should make daily protection a habit.

The Myth: "Why should I worry? I only damaged my skin as a kid or in college."

The Doctor Says: Even if your days of bikini-clad beachside tanning sessions are long past and you haven't had a sunburn for years, wearing sunscreen daily and taking other protective measures can guarantee healthier skin and possibly a longer life. "Skin cancer is a cumulative effect," said Washington. "You can still benefit from staying skin-smart today."

The Bottom Line: Don't wait until a skin damage scare forces you to take action to protect your skin -- upping your vigilance today will still help you in the future.

The Myth: "Its only skin -- its no big deal."

The Doctor Says: Your skin is the largest organ in your body (yes, it is an organ) and damaging it is a big deal. "When that same patient gets skin cancer on his face and then has to have it cut out, he's usually pretty freaked out," said Van Beek. Scars from removing moles or cancerous growths can be broad (consider having a 3- to 5-inch scar on your face!) depending on how deep the problem patch is.

The Bottom Line: Care for your skin seriously. The more times you damage it with sun exposure, the more chances you have to develop skin cancer.

The Myth: "I've heard I need to be out in the sun to make sure I'm getting enough vitamin D."

The Doctor Says: It is true that sun exposure provides a natural source of vitamin D -- but most people severely overestimate how much they need. "Usually just the exposure you get going to and from work is enough," said Washington. "Most Americans get enough vitamin D from fortified foods to not need it from the sun at all."

The Bottom Line: Fill your daily vitamin D quota through a healthy diet. If you're concerned, take a multivitamin that includes vitamin D.

The Myth: "Tans are healthy."

The Doctor Says: This is a classic myth, and it's absolutely false. There is no such thing as a "safe" tan. But it's a tough line to discredit, says Van Beek. "Tanning does release endorphins, which make you feel happy, and it can make you look thinner." But the payoff is short-lived, she says. And the consequences are fine wrinkling, blotchy skin, and a heightened risk of skin cancer.

The Bottom Line: If you crave a "healthy" glow from a tan, try a self-tanner or bronzing powder. The streaky orange self-tanners are a product of the past, so a "fake bake" looks more natural than ever. As for those feel-good endorphins released by basking in the sun, other activities like exercise, sex, laughter, and eating chocolate also release them -- so choose a safer, skin-friendly alternative.

Originally published on, April 2006.