Every year when May rolls around, we’re all reminded how important protecting our skin is during Skin Cancer Awareness Month. But now it’s June. And, unfortunately, like most new year’s resolutions, the good skin habits we take on often fall off our radar just a few weeks later—which is particularly bad timing considering summer is here and it’s especially crucial to defend our skin from harmful rays of sunshine.
As a board certified plastic surgeon who routinely performs skin cancer removal, Dr. Garazo has seen first hand just how dangerous too much sun exposure can be. But as a human, he also knows how hard it can be to adopt and stick with good habits.
To help you out, he shared some simple ways to incorporate good skin health habits into your daily routine.
1. First, do your research
Somewhat surprisingly, sunscreen has become a bit of a hot topic the last few months, thanks to ongoing research into its safety and efficacy. We love knowing that our go-to products are being monitored, but the unfortunate side effect is that the follow-up media doesn’t always get it right—and most of us are left wondering the best course of action for staying healthy and protected.
If a friend shares a sensational article on Facebook or you scan a Buzzfeed article questioning the safety of a product, don’t just take it at face value. While the internet is an invaluable resource, it’s also a bit like the wild wild west—and not everything you read is valid. If you have any concerns, make sure to do some research and discuss with your doctor.
Are there downsides to sunscreen? The answer isn’t black and white
The American Cancer Society recommends 30 SPF or higher, though some disagree that this should be a universal standard. For instance, if you have a darker skin tone or are naturally less prone to sunburn, a lower SPF may provide sufficient protection without completely denying your body vitamin D—and the potential body-wide health benefits of the sun. In fact, studies have shown that the benefits of sun exposure may outweigh the risk in certain circumstances.
Another recent study looking at the chemicals our bodies absorb from sunscreen has many worried at first glance—particularly when the popular media follow with sensational headlines about the dangers of SPF products. And while ongoing research into any products we put on or into our bodies is crucial, a full read of the actual study shows that the doctors who conducted the research recommend continuing to use sunscreen as advised and recommend a deeper look into their findings and other products.
Feel like you’re receiving conflicting advice? That’s why it’s important to do your research, talk with your physician, and find the right middle ground for you. By and large, totally forgoing sunscreen is not recommended, though balance and moderation may be the key. Know where you’re most at risk for burning or skin cancer development, limit your time in harsh sunny weather, and ask your doctor for their recommendations.
2. Now, check your products
Not all sunscreens are created equally—and not all products are the right fit for your skin type or lifestyle. Next time you’re cleaning the bathroom or searching for your favorite bath bomb, take a few minutes to take stock of what you have and replace as needed.
- Throw away expired sunscreen. Did you know sunscreen has a lifespan? While using out-of-date sunscreen likely won’t harm your body directly, it may not be as effective—and you may be spending the day at the beach without the protection you thought you had. The FDA requires all sunscreens to retain maximum effectiveness and strength for three years, so if you have bottles that have been sitting around longer than that, swap them out for new products. To help keep it effective over that three-year-span, keep bottles/tubes out of direct sun and excessive heat, and toss any that develop changes in color or texture.
- Understand SPF. Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is the measurement standard used to determine how long a product will protect you from UVB rays, which are the primary culprit when it comes to sunburn and damaging your skin, if you use as directed. Essentially, it’s telling you how long it would take your skin to redden from UV exposure with the product vs without the product. So, SPF 30 would give you 30x the amount of time before burning than you would without using sunscreen. SPF 30 allows only 3% of UVB rays to hit your skin. But jumping around between SPF numbers can get confusing, as, for example, SPF 50 makes only a 1% difference (it allows 2% of UVB rays to get to your skin). That means that even super high SPF products won’t fully protect you—and you still have to stay on top of reapplication and avoid direct exposure during peak sunlight hours.
- Worried about chemicals? Opt for physical protection. Those who prefer to use natural products (or are now concerned from the new research described above) do have options for staying safe in the sun. We highly recommend against forgoing sunscreen altogether. Instead, opt for mineral or physical sunscreens that use zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which reflect the sun’s rays without the use of chemicals. Alternatively, if you’re an outdoor athlete or spend lots of time in the sun, consider investing in some sun-protective clothing, a fashionable sun hat, and large, protective sunglasses.
3. Use technology to your advantage
Developing new good habits can be difficult because you have yet to make them part of your routine. Luckily, if you own a smartphone, you already have a little assistant in your pocket who can help you stay on track.
- At the pool? Set reminders for reapplying your sunscreen! If you’re just lounging with a good book, make sure to reapply every 90 minutes to two hours. But if you’re splashing in the water, you’ll want to reapply as soon as you get out of the water and wait around 30 minutes to get back in.
- Schedule a monthly self-check—and use your phone to take a peek at hard-to-reach areas. After you get out of the shower and dry off, your self-check will take only a few minutes, even to thoroughly examine your body. If you don’t have a full-length mirror or significant other to peek at areas you can’t see, use a selfie-stick and your phone camera to help you out. Here is Dr. Garazo’s easy-to-follow guide for skin cancer self-examination.
- Take pictures of any new moles or marks, as well as existing moles. This will make it easy to note any changes in appearance or size, in addition to providing you with a record for your doctor.
4. See a pro
While monitoring your skin at home is a fantastic way to keep track of your skin health and note any changes, humans are fallible. There is a chance you could miss something or, alternatively, end up stressing over what ends up being a harmless blemish. This is where the doctor comes in. Just like your doctor monitors your blood work, reproductive system, and general health during your yearly physical, a physician should also be examining your skin regularly.
Sometimes insurance doesn’t fully cover dermatological visits, so it’s understandable if you’re hesitant to maintain a yearly “skin physical.” However, most skin cancers are easily treated if they are detected early enough—and even a year or two can make a huge difference. Let your general practitioner know you want them to look at any moles or blemishes during your physical; while they might not be able to diagnose, they can note anything worrying and make a referral when they feel it is necessary.
We wish you a happy summer and a lifetime of good skin health!