Stay Safe in the Sun After Skin Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD on September 21, 2017
4 min read

If you've had skin cancer, you don't need to stay indoors and read a book while everyone else is out riding a bike or at a ball game. You do need to be extra careful in the sun, though.

"We want to encourage a healthy lifestyle," says Lisa Chipps, MD, director of dermatologic surgery at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center.

But once you've had a skin cancer, she says, you're more likely to have another. If you've had a melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, you're nine times more likely to have a new one.

The key, Chipps says, is to take steps to protect your skin from harmful rays whenever you go outside -- whether you're going to the beach or just to the office.

If you're going to be outdoors, follow these tips:

Avoid the sun when it's strongest. That's between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Go out earlier or in the late afternoon.

Go under cover. Covering up with the right clothes may protect you even better than sunscreen. When selecting clothing:

  • If you can see through the fabric, ultraviolet (UV) rays can get through, too. Pick a tighter weave. Regular clothing has an SPF (sun protection factor) of 6. You need clothing with an SPF of 50 to protect yourself.
  • Consider shirts and pants made in UV-absorbing fabric, especially if you burn easily.
  • Complete your outfit with a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection.

Apply sunscreen early and often. If you're in and out of the water or working up a sweat in the garden, you need a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or more. Find one that's water-resistant for 80 minutes. To protect against cancer-causing UVA rays, look for ingredients like:

"Apply a shot glass-sized amount to your whole body at least 30 minutes before you're in the sun," says Brian Johnson, MD. He's a dermatologic surgeon in Norfolk, VA, and a spokesman for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

If you use a sunscreen spray, apply it until an even sheen appears on all of your exposed skin. Don't spray sunscreen on your face. Spray it in your hands, and then spread it on your face. But be careful where you are when you apply it. Some sunscreen sprays may contain ingredients that can catch fire.

Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. If you're in the water, apply it each time you get out. Between water and sweat, even heavy-duty sunscreens can't hold up too long.

Remember too that sun reflects off sand and water. This can make UV rays 80% more intense.

Find a place out of the sun. If there’s not a shady spot, bring your own. Take an umbrella on picnics and other outings. Some are made with fabric that has an SPF of 35.

Keep tabs on your skin. "There's no data on how much time is safe in the sun," Chipps says. But if your skin starts to look or feel red, time's up. Even one sunburn raises your chance of melanoma.

Keep a tote stocked for daytime outings. Have everything you need ready: sunscreen, lip balm (SPF 30 or higher), hat, long-sleeved shirt, and shades. That way, you can pick up the bag and go without a worry.

These tips can also help you stay sun-safe daily, even in winter:

  • Wear sunscreen every day. It should have an SPF of 30 or more. Rub it on any bare skin -- like your face, ears, hands, and neck. Too much hassle? Use a spray. Too slimy? "Use a moisturizer with sunscreen," Johnson says. "Find something you like and will use."
  • Don't get tan. Sunburns aren't the only problem. "A tan is how your body tries to protect itself when your skin is getting damaged," Johnson says. Damage builds up over time, especially on your head and neck, because they get the most sun.
  • Never use a tanning bed. A 2013 study showed that about 15% of young people who've had basal cell carcinoma, the most common form of skin cancer, still use tanning beds. Tanning beds raise your chances of melanoma by 75%.
  • Do skin exams. Check your skin monthly. If you live with a partner, you may want to check each other's skin. "Spouses may detect melanoma sooner than doctors," Chipps says. Stay on schedule with your dermatologist exams. And if you see something new on your skin, don't wait. See your dermatologist.