12 Ways to Protect Your Skin and Prevent Skin Cancer
5. SPF is only half the story: By law, sunscreen labels must list the familiar sun protection factor, which tells you how effectively the product blocks UVB rays, the ones primarily responsible for sunburn. But there's no rating system yet for how well a sunscreen stops UVA rays, which penetrate deeper into the base layer of the skin and can cause dangerous cell changes. The FDA has proposed a new sunscreen rule that would include label revisions for UVA. Until they're in place, David J. Leffell, M.D., professor of dermatology and surgery at Yale School of Medicine, recommends choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which offers greater UVA (as well as UVB) protection. To check if a product fits the bill, look for UVA-screening ingredients, including avobenzone (Parsol 1789) and ecamsule (Mexoryl SX). Or use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are physical blocks that protect against all rays. But the FDA cautions that, no matter how broad-spectrum, sunscreen isn't enough — you must wear sun-protective clothing, too.
6. If you live in Fargo, ND, and always use sunscreen, your risk of melanoma can be greater than your friend's in Miami: For years, researchers had puzzled over the fact that sunscreen users seemed more likely to develop melanoma than those who didn't protect themselves. But now scientists from the University of California, San Diego, may have figured out why. In a recent study, they found that the unexpected connection applies mainly to people with fair complexions in northern latitudes (north of Philadelphia or Boulder). They speculate that sunscreen users in northern areas never feel the burning that would warn them to cover up or get out of the sun because their lotions do a good job of blocking UVB rays. But meanwhile, they're being exposed to hundreds of times more cancer-causing UVA rays than they'd be able to tolerate if they weren't using sunscreen. Bottom line: Whatever your latitude, you need to practice sun-safety measures.
7. You're not fooling anyone with your tanning-bed habit — especially your skin: Despite what the salon receptionist may say, there's no evidence that browning yourself in a bed is any safer than doing it at the beach. "Even though there are federal guidelines for the amount of time someone should spend in a tanning bed, we know these are not always followed," says Michael J. Franzblau, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology (emeritus) at the University of California, San Francisco. The numbers tell the story: People who frequent tanning salons are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell cancer and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell. If you're still an indoor sunbather — a recent survey shows that over 15 percent of women in their 40s and 10 percent in their 50s and early 60s use tanning beds — stop now. But even if you've given up the habit, you could be in trouble. Exposure to tanning beds before age 35 significantly increases your risk of melanoma. Protect yourself by being vigilant about monthly self-exams and yearly derm checks.