The best defense against skin cancer is prevention. Regular use of sunscreen, seeking shade and avoiding mid-day sun, wearing sunglasses and protective clothing and avoiding tanning beds have been shown to effectively reduce skin cancer risk. Having a dermatology provider perform a full-body skin cancer screening at regular intervals offers the best detection of existing skin cancers.

Wearing sunscreen regularly can decrease the risk of skin pre-cancers and skin cancers. It reduces the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40 percent, and lowers the melanoma risk by 50 percent. It is recommended that every person, no matter their skin color, wear broad spectrum SPF 30 or above. Broad spectrum sunscreen means it protects against UVA and UVB. UVA are the sun rays that cause aging of your skin and UVB rays are the sun rays that cause burning of the skin. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. The number indicates how long the sun’s UVB rays would take to redden your skin if you apply the sunscreen exactly as directed compared with the amount of time without sunscreen. So if SPF 30 product is applied properly, it would take 30 times longer to burn than if you used no sunscreen.

Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes prior to sun exposure and then reapplied every 90 minutes. Sunscreen should be reapplied immediately after swimming and sweating.

Types of Sunscreen

Physical Sunscreen

Physical sunscreen ingredients (including the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) block and scatter the rays before they penetrate your skin. Recommended types include: Think Baby/ Think Sport sunscreen, Skinceuticals, EltaMD, Supergoop, Clear Zinc, TIZO, Anthelios Mineral, Colorescience dry sunscreen, Avene tinted compact, ISDIN mineral sun brush, and Bare Republic Mineral sunscreens

Chemical Sunscreen

Chemical sunscreen ingredients (like avobenzone, oxybenzone and octinoxate and octisalate) absorb UV rays rather than block them.

Over the counter antioxidant supplement containing Polypodium leucotomos fern (brands Heliocare or Solaricare) has been shown to be helpful in protecting the skin from sun exposure and the aging effects of free radicals. It is recommended to be taken 240mg once daily and is most useful for patients who are sensitive to the sun such as those with polymorphous light eruption.

Frequently Asked Questions about Sunscreen

Which sunscreen SPF should I use?

Sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97 percent of the sun's UVB rays is recommended. Higher number SPFs block slightly more of the sun's UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun's UVB rays. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays.

How much sunscreen do I need?

Apply enough sunscreen to cover all skin that clothing does not. Most adults need about 1 ounce — or enough to fill a shot glass — to fully cover their body.

Is sunscreen safe? There are many questions and concerns regarding the safety of sunscreen. Few states (Hawaii and Florida so far) have banned chemical sunscreen usage as the chemicals may cause damage to coral reefs. Mineral sunscreens with “non-nanotized” zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (“non-nanotized” means the ingredients are 100 nanometers in diameter or more) appear to be safer for coral reefs.

The FDA is calling for more safety data on nine common chemical ingredients used in sunscreens before determining whether these ingredients can be classified as GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective). Ingredients commonly used in the U.S that are being further evaluated include: ensulizole, octisalate, homosalate, octocrylene, octinoxate, oxybenzone, and avobenzone.

Should I stop using sunscreens that contain any of the ingredients that the FDA wants more safety data on?

While the FDA is asking for more data, it does not mean that the ingredients are unsafe. It does not ask the public to stop using sunscreens that contain any of these ingredients. A recent study by the FDA looked at four sunscreen ingredients and concluded that absorption of these ingredients need additional safety data. However, the study noted that the data do not conclude that there are any effects on a person’s health and more research would be needed before it that can be determined. Importantly, the study authors stated that individuals should continue to use sunscreen.

Is my moisturizer with sunscreen enough?

Moisturizers and makeup with SPF are not as effective as sunscreen alone. The moisturizer/makeup component dilutes the SPF and still needs re-application every 90 minutes. Typically sunscreens used in moisturizers and makeup are the chemical ingredients. SPF is not cumulative which means the SPF of a moisturizer with sunscreen plus a foundation with sunscreen does not equal the 2 sunscreens together.

Can I use spray sunscreen?

Spray sunscreens are sometimes preferred by parents since they are easy to apply to children. These products should not be inhaled or applied near heat, open flame or while smoking. Current FDA regulations on testing and standardization do not pertain to spray sunscreens. At this time, cream or lotions are preferred.

Can I use tanning beds prior to my vacation to get my “skin ready”?

The United States Department of Health & Human Services and the World Health Organization’s International Agency of Research on Cancer have declared UV radiation from the sun and artificial sources, such as tanning beds and sun lamps, as a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance). There is no safe way to tan. Every time you tan, you damage your skin. As this damage builds, you speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for all types of skin cancer. Just one indoor tanning session can increase the risk of developing skin cancer (melanoma by 20%, squamous cell carcinoma by 67%, and basal cell carcinoma by 29%).

What about Vitamin D?

Most people can get the vitamin D they need from foods and/or vitamin supplements. This approach gives you the vitamin D you need without increasing your risk for skin cancer.

What else can help to prevent skin cancer?

Nicotinamide (Vitamin B3) may help prevent certain skin cancers. The vitamin is safe and can be purchased over the counter. Recommended dose is 500 mg twice a day and may be used by patients with a history of a basal cell carcinoma or squamous cell carcinoma, or with extensive skin damage due to sun exposure.

What is UPF clothing?

Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) indicates how much UV radiation (both UVB and UVA) a fabric allows to reach your skin. For example, a UPF 50 fabric blocks 98 percent of the sun’s rays and allows two percent (1/50th) to penetrate, thus reducing your exposure risk significantly. If sunscreen is not available, tightly woven protective clothing provides about 50 SPF.