Ingredients matter. Does your sunscreen leave you overexposed to damaging UVA rays? Does it break down in the sun? Does it contain compounds that may disrupt your hormones?
First things first
Check your skin regularly for new moles that are tender or growing. Ask your primary care doctor how often you should see a dermatologist.
The best defenses against getting too much harmful UV radiation are protective clothing, shade and timing.
Don’t get burned. Red, sore, blistered or peeling skin means far too much sun – and raises your skin cancer risk.
Wear clothes. Shirts, hats, shorts and pants provide the best protection from UV rays – and they don’t coat your skin with goop.
Find shade – or make it. Picnic under a tree, read beneath an umbrella, take a canopy to the beach. Keep infants in the shade – they lack the tanning pigments known as melanin to protect their skin.
Plan around the sun. Go outdoors in early morning or late afternoon, when the sun is lower. UV radiation peaks at midday.
Sunglasses aren’t just a fashion accessory. Good shades protect your eyes from UV radiation that causes cataracts.
Now put on sunscreen
Some sunscreens prevent sunburn but not other types of skin damage. Make sure yours offers broad spectrum protection.
Don’t fall for high SPF labels. Anything higher than SPF 50+ can tempt you to stay in the sun too long. Even if you don’t burn, your skin may be damaged. Stick to SPFs between 15 and 50. Pick a product based on your own skin coloration, time outside, shade and cloud cover. Reapply often.
Avoid sunscreen with vitamin A. Eating vitamin A-laden vegetables is good for you, but spreading vitamin A on your skin may not be. Government data show that tumors and lesions develop sooner on skin coated with creams laced with vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate or retinol. It’s in 16 percent of all sunscreens we reviewed in 2016. Avoid any skin or lip product whose label includes retinyl palmitate, retinol or vitamin A.
Avoid oxybenzone, a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and can disrupt the hormone system. Look for products with zinc oxide, 3 percent avobenzone or Mexoryl SX. They protect skin from harmful UVA radiation.
No insect repellent. If you need bug repellent, buy it separately and apply it first.
Pick a good sunscreen. EWG’s sunscreen database rates the safety and efficacy of SPF-rated products, including more than 7500 sunscreens for beach and sports use, more than 500 SPF-rated moisturizers, and more than 100 lip products. We give high ratings to brands that provide broad spectrum, long-lasting protection with ingredients that pose fewer health concerns when absorbed by the body.
Don’t spray. Sprays cloud the air with tiny particles that may not be safe to breathe.
Reapply cream often. Sunscreen chemicals sometimes degrade in the sun, wash off or rub off on towels and clothing.
Men ignore sun safety at their peril. In 2013, nearly twice as many American men died from melanoma as women. Surveys show that 48 percent of men report routine sun avoidance, compared to 68 percent of women.
Got your vitamin D? Many people don’t get enough vitamin D, a hormone manufactured by the skin in the presence of sunlight. Your doctor can test your level and recommend supplements if you are low in this vital nutrient.
Sun safety tips for kids
A few blistering sunburns in childhood can double a person’s lifetime chances of developing serious forms of skin cancer. The best sunscreen is a hat and shirt. After that, protect kids with a sunscreen that’s effective and safe.
Take these special precautions with infants and children:
Infants under six months should be kept out of direct sun as much as possible. Their skin is not yet protected by melanin. When you take your baby outside:
Cover up with protective clothing, tightly woven but loose-fitting, and a sun hat.
Make shade. Use the stroller’s canopy or hood. If you can’t sit in a shady spot, use an umbrella.
Avoid midday sun. Take walks in the early morning or late afternoon.
Follow product warnings for sunscreens on infants younger than 6 months old. Most manufacturers advise against using sunscreens on infants or advise parents and caregivers to consult a doctor first. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that small amounts of sunscreen can be used on infants as a last resort when shade can’t be found.
Toddlers and children
Sunscreens are an essential part of a day in the sun. But young children’s skin is especially sensitive to chemical allergens – as well as the sun’s UV rays.
Test sunscreen by applying a small amount on the inside of your child’s wrist the day before you plan to use it. If an irritation or rash develops, try another product. Ask your child’s doctor to suggest a product less likely to irritate your child’s skin.
Slop on sunscreen and reapply it often, especially if your child is playing in the water or sweating a lot.
Sun safety at school
Send a sunscreen to daycare and school. Some childcare facilities provide sunscreen, but you can buy your own to make sure it’s safe and effective. Share EWG’s safe sunscreen tips and product suggestions with your child’s school and caregiver.
Sometimes school and daycare policies interfere with children’s sun safety. Many schools treat sunscreen as a medicine and require written permission to use it on a child. Some insist that the school nurse apply it. Some ban hats and sunglasses. Here are a few questions to ask your school:
What is the policy on sun safety?
Is there shade on the playground?
Are outdoor activities scheduled to avoid midday sun?
Teenagers coveting bronzed skin are likely to sunbathe or patronize tanning salons – both bad ideas. Researchers believe that increasing UV exposure may have caused the marked increase in melanoma incidence noted among women born after 1965. Tanning parlors expose the skin to as much as 15 times more UV radiation than the sun and contribute to the increase in melanoma rates.
To parents of teens: Be good role models – let your teen see that you protect yourself from the sun. Tan does not mean healthy.