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Here's everything you need to know about sunscreen before heading outside

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, but it's also one of the most preventable.
Credit: WATN

MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Warmer weather is here, and crowds are gathering outside to enjoy the summer sun. You probably know how important it is to wear sunscreen, but many people still have questions about exactly when, where, and how to wear it. 

UV radiation from the sun can cause several health problems, including skin cancer, cataracts, immune system suppression, premature aging and skin damage.

More radiation exposure can suppress the proper functioning of the body’s immune system. Your skin is a defense against foreign invaders, for example, but if you are exposed to high levels of UV radiation for too long, it can weaken your immune system and reduce the skin's ability to protect against the invaders.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. It’s the most common cancer in the U.S., and more people are being diagnosed with skin cancer than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.

Here are some sun safety tips from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that will help protect you and your skin this summer:

  • Stay in the shade when possible.
  • Put on a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects from both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 15 or higher before going outside. Reapply the sunscreen every two hours, and make sure to check the expiration date before using it.
  • Wear long-sleeve shirts and pants to reduce sun exposure and throw on a t-shirt or beach cover-up on top of your bathing suit.
  • Put on a hat with a wide brim all the way around to protect your face, ears and neck. Avoid straw hats because the sun’s rays can still shine through them.
  • Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes.

Dr. Samuel Riney is a hematology and oncology physician at the Methodist Cancer Institute in Memphis. He says even though skin cancer is one of the most common types of cancers, it's also easily preventable by wearing sunscreen and protecting your skin.

Why do I need to wear sunscreen?

Dr. Riney says the sun produces harmful UV rays that can damage your skin and cause cancers. Natural melanin in our skin protects us from some of this sunlight, but not all of it. Sunscreen acts as a supplement to this natural melanin to ensure your skin isn't damaged.

When should I wear sunscreen?

Long story short, doctors recommend you wear sunscreen whenever you are directly exposed to sunlight, even for a short amount of time. This is especially true between 10am and 4pm when the UV index is highest. Otherwise, wear clothing that covers your skin, like a long-sleeved shirt or a hat.

How much sunscreen should I use?

Doctors recommend you use about a shot glass' worth of sunscreen on your entire body. However, they say extra won't hurt.

When should I apply more sunscreen?

Dr. Riney says you should reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, or every time you get out of the water. 

What SPF sunscreen is the best?

SPF stands for sun protection factor - the higher the number, the more protection you have from harmful UV rays. SPF 15 blocks about 93% of UV rays, while SPF 40 blocks 97%. According to Dr. Riney, SPF 40 is plenty for most people, but if you spend extended time outdoors or have a family history of skin cancer, you may want to choose something with a slightly higher SPF.

Do I still need to wear sunscreen if I have darker skin?

Yes! Although people with fair skin tend to burn a bit more easily, Dr. Riney says anyone's skin can be damaged by sunlight or tanning, and it's important to wear sunscreen to stay protected. 

Okay... but I want to get a tan while protecting my skin. Does sunscreen prevent tanning?

Tanning is your body's response to injury from too much sunlight in the form of UV rays. Sunscreen limits your skin's exposure to UV rays, which means you won't tan as much as you would without sunscreen. 

What if I have a new tattoo, can I wear sunscreen?

Since a new tattoo is an open wound, you shouldn't apply sunscreen to the area until it is fully healed. Doctors say you should cover the area with dark clothing instead. 

Can you use expired sunscreen?

While not harmful or dangerous to use expired sunscreen, it will become less and less effective after it's expiration date. You should throw out sunscreen once it passes the expiration date.

Is a tanning bed any safer than direct sunlight?

No! In fact, Dr. Riney says it's even worse. Tanning beds bombard your skin with large amounts of UV light in a short amount of time which can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Instead, try alternatives, like spray tanning or self tanners. 

WQAD contributed to this report

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