Every summer, sunbathers head out to the pool or the beach to work on their tan. There’s also a wealth of outdoor activities to get involved in during the summer months that can leave our skin out in the open. We all know about the dangers of sun exposure, and most of us directly counteract that danger with sunscreen.

Cosmetics sales show that Americans are using more sunscreen than ever, buying over 60 million units last year—a 13 percent increase from 2005. Generally, consumers infer that, the higher S.P.F. (Sun Protection Factor) a sunscreen touts, the more defense they have from the sun’s rays. However, studies are saying this may not be entirely true.

Researchers at the Queensland Institute for Medical Research in Brisbane, Australia conducted a 5-year study beginning in 1999 of over a thousand adults who were asked to use sunscreen on a daily basis. Scientists concluded that using sunscreen significantly reduced UV skin damage as well as basal carcinomas and squamous cell carcinoma (two common types of skin cancer). However, instances of melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, occurred just as frequently in sunscreen users as in non-sunscreen users.

The reason for this discrepancy is thought to lie in ultraviolet light. The sun emits three different types of UV light. The first and most destructive, UVC, is absorbed by our atmosphere. UVB and UVA pass through our atmospheric gases. Though sun block absorbs most UVB, sunscreens typically do not prevent UVA from reaching the skin. It could be that, even though skin doesn’t appear to burn, exposure to UVA light over the years may lead to eventual melanoma.

The only sure way to avoid dangerous sun exposure is to wear protective clothing (including hats) or stay indoors, but, if you’re determined to get out there and bare your skin, here are a few tips to remember:

  • Apply a generous amount of sunscreen (a shot glass-full will do) every 2 hours, and re-apply after getting in the water, sweating or toweling off.
  • Along with protective clothing, remember to shield the delicate skin around your eyes with sunglasses.
  • Avoid sun exposure between the hours of 10am and 4pm, when UV rays are at their strongest.
  • Use self-tanning lotions in lieu of tanning beds or suntans.
  • Sunscreen does not allow you to stay in the sun longer. Limit sun exposure, even with regular sun block application, to less than 4 hours at a time.

The American Academy of Dermatology reports that more than 1 million new cases of skin cancer will be reported this year. They say that the main problem is more a lack of detection than a lack of prevention. If skin cancer is detected early on, it is far more likely to respond to treatment. For this reason, examine your skin regularly for changes in moles and blemishes, using a mirror for spots that might be difficult to see. If you find something that you can tell has altered in size or shape, be sure to tell your doctor about it.

Lastly, children should always be covered with sunscreen when playing outdoors. Be sure your kids wear hats and other protective clothing as well. Though their skin may seem resilient, studies show that burns early in life may turn into skin cancers later on. When it comes to the sun, it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

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