Summer Skincare and Sun Protection 101

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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.

Continued on page 4:  Lesson 3: Cancer Self-Screening


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