While sitting at the beach over Memorial Day weekend, I pleaded unsuccesfully with my 14-year-old son to put on a shirt so he wouldn’t burn. He didn’t listen and was rewarded with red shoulders the next day, after which he declared that sunscreen doesn’t really work.
Well, actually it does, but not perfectly and not the same in everyone.
Here are five common mistakes we make when it comes to protecting against the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays — and how to avoid them.
1. Putting too much stock in sunscreen. Some sunscreens don’t protect against both kinds of skin-damaging UV rays. The US Food and Drug Administration’s requirement that sunscreen labels reflect this won’t go into effect until the end of this year. “The SPF number just tells you how much extra time you can spend in the sun without getting burned, but for most fair-skinned people, that means a limit of about two hours with an SPF of 30,” said Dr. Rhoda Alani, chair of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine.
And that’s if we’re applying enough: The amount that fills a shot glass is what’s needed to cover the entire body, according to Dr. Hensin Tsao, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital; we also need to reapply it every few hours, especially if we’re outside during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Also, sunscreen won’t protect against radiation damage to your eyes, so remember to don sunglasses with UV protection.
2. Thinking any old T-shirt will protect you from a burn. While I have yet to get a sunburn through my clothes, experts insist that can happen. “A regular white T-shirt only provides an SPF of 6,” said Alani. Shirts that are sheer or threadbare provide even less protection. She recommends using UV-protective clothing — especially if you’re spending time at the beach or on a boat where there’s little shade. “Look for clothes with a UPF [ultraviolet protection factor] above 30.”
3. Investing in shampoos or hair gels with UV blockers instead of a hat. There are a host of hair products offering “climate protection” for your hair — and by extension your scalp — but both Alani and Tsao said whatever SPF they offer is negligible. Better, they said, to wear a hat to protect against scalp burns.
4. Believing you can get a little extra sun if you take a daily aspirin. A study that made big headlines last week linked the regular use of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen to a reduced risk of melanoma. While this finding, which was published in the online journal Cancer, is intriguing, Tsao said, it’s impractical to apply to your daily life. “It’s not an oral sunscreen by any means,” he added. Nor should people start taking aspirin or ibuprofen — which have side effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding — because they think it will protect them from skin cancer.
5. Assuming any protective measure is as good as avoiding excess sun exposure. Those with an increased risk of melanoma — because of a family history or tendency to develop irregular moles — need to make an effort to avoid being outdoors during midday, said Alani. The rest of us should just practice common sense, enjoying our time outdoors but heading into shady areas when possible.
Kathern wrote: Children are having increased skin cancer. My grandson at the age of 12 had three removed and six stitches on his back; he did use sun protection but not all the time. He hated the feel of it. His skin specialist also said that they are seeing an increase in cancerous spots at the eyes because the “fun” sunglasses do not protect the eyes with the proper protection.
Deborah Kotz responds: Experts recommmend choosing sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays. This should be stated on the label; skip brands that don’t offer details on UV protection.