Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Melanoma Monday: Safe sunscreen choices

blog sunscreen tips

May is Melanoma Awareness Month, a time to raise melanoma awareness and promote ways to prevent skin cancer. As the most common cancer type, skin cancer affects more than 3.5 million people each year in the United States. The good news is this type of cancer can largely be prevented by limiting harmful exposure to UV rays.

Staying in the shade when you’re outside is one way to limit exposure, but if fun in the sun is on your summer agenda, follow these tips to help protect your skin.

Slip on a shirt or other protective clothing

Clothing is a good way to protect as much skin as possible while outside. Choose dark colors instead of light colors for maximum protection.

Some companies make clothes specifically designed to block UV rays, even when wet. The clothes have special coatings to help absorb the rays, and may have a label showing the UV protection factor (UPF) value. This indicates the level of protection the clothing provides on a scale from 15-50.

Wearing a wide-brimmed hat can protect your head and neck, two common places for skin cancer to develop. UV-blocking sunglasses are also recommended to protect the skin around the eyes.

Apply sunscreen correctly

Putting on sunscreen shields your skin from UV rays by scattering the light and reflecting it away from your body. It also stops your skin from absorbing UV rays. When choosing which sunscreen to use, pay attention to the Sun Protection Factor (SPF). This number shows the level of protection against UVB rays. Although higher SPF numbers offer more protection, an extremely high SPF doesn’t protect much more than a lower one. SPF 30 isn’t twice as strong as SPF 15. According to the American Cancer Society, SPF 15 filters out 93 percent of UVB rays, while SPF 100 filters out about 99 percent.

Even though it may seem simple, proper sunscreen use is important. Some tips to keep in mind:  

  • Use water-resistant sunscreen when necessary. Each water-resistant sunscreen should say whether it protects skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating.
  • Check the expiration date. Once sunscreen expires, the active ingredients are ineffective.
  • Apply generously. It is recommended that a shot glass (or one ounce) of sunscreen be used to cover your arms, legs, neck and face. The more skin that is shown, the more sunscreen will be needed.
  • Reapply often.  Sunscreen should to be reapplied at least every 2 hours to maintain protection.
  • Consider choosing a broad-spectrum sunscreen. This type of sunscreen protects the skin against UVA and UVB rays. In addition to protecting skin from exposure that causes skin cancer, broad spectrum sunscreen has shown to offer protection from free radicals – molecules that cause skin damage and aging.

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher whenever you will be in the sun for longer than 20 minutes, year round.

Know the ABCDEs of skin cancer

Early detection is the best protection when it comes to skin cancer. It’s important to know what to look for so you can talk to your doctor if you notice any changes in moles, freckles or spots on your skin.

  • A – Asymmetric
  • B – Borders that are irregular or ragged rather than smooth
  • C – Color variation in the same mole (i.e., a mole that is more than one color or if you notice a mole has changed color, particularly if it has become black or dark)
  • D – Diameter of more than 6 mm (i.e., a new or enlarging mole that is larger than an eraser on a no. 2 pencil)
  • E – Elevation or heaping up of a pre-existing mole

Skin cancer usually does not hurt. If you or someone you know notices a new skin lesion/mole or a change in something you have had before, see your internist or dermatologist right away. In the case of a child, you should take him or her to a pediatrician as soon as possible.

Don’t forget to check your fingernails, toenails, palms and the bottom of your feet. Melanoma can occur in places you might not expect.

See our infographic to learn more about skin cancer.