Consumer Reports’ Shop Smart: 5 skin-saving sunscreen facts

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Sun­screen may be big busi­ness, with sales top­ping $1 bil­lion last year, but not nearly enough of us seem to buy into its im­por­tance, says Con­sumer Re­ports.

More than half of the re­spon­dents in a new Con­sumer Re­ports sur­vey say they usu­ally skip sun­screen.

It’s not sur­pris­ing, then, that the in­ci­dence of non­mel­a­noma skin can­cers, the most com­mon types, has reached alarm­ing pro­por­tions — up 77 per­cent in the past 14 years — and rates of mel­a­noma, the most deadly form of skin can­cer, have also in­creased.

Know­ing the facts can save your birth­day suit — and pos­si­bly your life.

1. You’re never too old to start wear­ing sun­screen.

By age 40, you’ve racked up only half of your life­time dose of UV rays; by age 60, just 74 per­cent.

And for those older than 50, be­ing in the sun sans pro­tec­tion can be par­tic­u­larly dan­ger­ous.

“Over the years, your body be­gins to lose its abil­ity to re­pair the cell dam­age cre­ated by the sun’s rays, mak­ing you more sus­cep­ti­ble to skin can­cer,” says Steven Wang, di­rec­tor of der­ma­to­logic sur­gery and der­ma­tol­ogy at Me­mo­rial Sloan Ket­ter­ing Cancer Center in Bask­ing Ridge, N.J., and a mem­ber of the pho­to­bi­ol­ogy com­mit­tee of the Skin Cancer Foun­da­tion, which has cor­po­rate spon­sors, in­clud­ing sun­screen man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“At the same time, your im­mune sys­tem, which plays a ma­jor role in halt­ing the growth of skin can­cers, weak­ens.”

That goes a long way to­ward ex­plain­ing why most skin can­cers are found on older peo­ple who have spent a lot of time in the sun.

2. Cover­ing up should be your first pri­or­ity.

Re­search shows that peo­ple who rely on sun­screens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves.

“Sun­screens are just one tool,” Dr. Wang says.

Avoid the sun or stay in the shade when the sun is the stron­gest (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.), and dress right for the oc­ca­sion.

Wear a hat and cloth­ing that’s made from tightly wo­ven fab­ric.

(Dark col­ors are bet­ter at block­ing UV rays.)

Spe­cially made fash­ions with built-in sun pro­tec­tion (you’ll see them la­beled as UPF, for “ul­tra­vi­o­let pro­tec­tion fac­tor”) might be more light­weight and com­fort­able than reg­u­lar cloth­ing.

3. Sun­screen can give you a false sense of se­cu­rity.

It’s a com­mon mis­con­cep­tion that if you’re wear­ing sun­screen, you can stay in the sun for as long as you like.

Some stud­ies show an as­so­ci­a­tion be­tween sun­screen use and an in­creased risk of skin can­cer, prob­a­bly be­cause us­ers felt more pro­tected and in­creased their sun time — of­ten with­out re­ap­ply­ing.

(That’s a habit that hasn’t changed; al­most 40 per­cent of re­spon­dents in the sur­vey said they rarely or never re­ap­ply sun­screen.)

Sun­screen is pro­tec­tive, but it’s not a magic bul­let.

4. A lit­tle dab won’t do ya. You should ap­ply about 2 ta­ble­spoons for face and body.

In Con­sumer Re­ports’ tests of sun­screens, its lab de­ter­mined that ap­ply­ing half of that amount means you get about half of a prod­uct's SPF (sun pro­tec­tion fac­tor).

It’s im­por­tant to re­ap­ply ev­ery two hours when you’re out in the sun; even very high-SPF sun­screens lose their ef­fec­tive­ness af­ter that.

5. There are sun­screen safety rules.

The sun­screens in sprays can pro­tect your skin as well as lo­tions.

But they aren’t right for ev­ery­one.

Sprays are flam­ma­ble, so you shouldn’t use them if you’ll be near an open flame, such as a grill.

The prod­uct can be in­haled, so don’t ap­ply it di­rectly to your face; spray into your hand, then rub in the sun­screen. Be­cause of those con­cerns, Con­sumer Re­ports rec­om­mends not us­ing sprays on kids.


By the ed­i­tors of Con­sumer Re­ports (www.con­sumer­re­p­orts.org).

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