6 Tips to Protect Your Skin From the Sun

A dermatologist shares advice on how to pick the best sunscreen and prevent skin damage.

Often when you ask a dermatologist for advice on how to care for your skin, you’ll get a one-word answer: sunscreen. “Everyone should be using it every day,” says Dr. Shari Lipner, a dermatologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and associate professor of clinical dermatology at Weill Cornell Medicine. The sun can be a carcinogen, she says. “Exposure to it in the long term increases your risk of three types of skin cancer, and it also causes skin aging.”

Here, Dr. Lipner shares her top six tips for protecting your skin and keeping it healthy. “As dermatologists, we don’t want to stop anyone’s summer fun,” she says. “But we have to do everything we can to protect ourselves.”

Portrait of Dr. Shari Lipner

Dr. Shari Lipner

1. Wear Sunscreen, Even When It’s Not Sunny

A burn is not the only kind of skin damage that can be caused by the sun, Dr. Lipner says. “Long-term sun exposure increases your risk of basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma,” she says.

It also prompts sunspots and visible signs of skin aging. “UV (ultraviolet) rays can break down the elastic fibers and the firming collagen proteins in our skin, causing wrinkles,” Dr. Lipner says. “They can also stimulate some of the pigment-producing cells called melanocytes, and cause what we know as liver spots, or solar lentigines.” Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays can also cause DNA damage, she adds.

Keep in mind that UV rays can reach the skin even on overcast days. So no matter the weather, if you’re headed outside, protect your skin from the sun with sunscreen.

2. Put On More Than You Think You Need

“People usually put on about 25% of the sunscreen that they need,” Dr. Lipner says. “In general, you should be applying a shot glass to cover yourself.” And you need to reapply every two hours, especially if you’ve been sweating or swimming.

In addition to sunscreen, Dr. Lipner suggests wearing sunglasses and protective clothing if you’re outdoors. If you don’t have Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing, opt for pieces with a thicker weave that block out light.

3. Know How to Pick the Right Sunscreen

There are two main types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. “Chemical sunscreens, which include active ingredients like oxybenzone and avobenzone, act like a sponge and absorb sunlight,” Dr. Lipner says. “Mineral sunscreens, typically with zinc oxide and titanium oxide, work by blocking the sun’s rays like a shield.”

While the FDA has shared that it is more closely examining select chemical sunscreen ingredients, both types of formulas are effective and available for safe use. “Some chemical sunscreens’ ingredients are being further studied for how they get absorbed in the skin,” Dr. Lipner says. “If you have concerns, then the mineral sunscreens are the way to go.”

When shopping for either type of sunblock, look for one labeled “broad spectrum protection,” which will safeguard against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. When it comes to the sun protection factor (SPF), keep it above 30.

“An SPF 30 will protect you from 97% of the sun’s rays,” Dr. Lipner says. A higher number, like 70, or even 100, offers only a minimal improvement in protection. The formula should also be labeled “water resistant.”

4. Look Out for Changes in Your Skin

Safety doesn’t stop with sunscreen. It’s important to see a board-certified dermatologist for a thorough skin exam once a year, more often if you have a history of skin cancer. And once a month, you should do your own examination at home. Check for any abnormalities, and note any textural changes, like scaliness, bumps, or rough, uneven areas. You also want to spot visible changes to your skin, especially around moles. “Sun exposure can cause moles to change in appearance, and that could be a sign of melanoma, which is the deadliest form of skin cancer,” Dr. Lipner says.

When examining your skin, remember the letters A, B, C, D, and E. “A stands for asymmetry,” Dr. Lipner says. “If you were to put a line through a mole, both sides should look the same; if they don’t, that’s a warning sign.” B stands for border, and the borders of your moles should be round and smooth; if they’re ragged or irregular, reach out to your doctor for a checkup. The C stands for color. “Moles with multiple colors or shades of brown or black may be a warning sign of melanoma.” D is for diameter; a mole that’s bigger than a pencil eraser could be cause for concern, Dr. Lipner says. “The letter E is most important; it stands for evolving: If you have a mole that is changing, or getting bigger, show it to a board-certified dermatologist.”

This mnemonic device applies to melanomas, Dr. Lipner says, but other types of skin cancer can have a different appearance. “The most common type is basal cell carcinoma, or basal cell cancer, and those tend not to be colored. Generally, basal cells can be a red scaly patch, or a little pink bump.” Less common than a basal cell cancer, but more common than melanoma, is a squamous cell carcinoma, and it can appear as a thickened area of skin.

When it comes to your skin, it’s key to spot any warning signs as soon as possible. “Vigilance and self-skin-checks are important.”

5. Don’t Use Vitamin D as an Excuse to Sunbathe

“For many years people believed that they needed to go out in the sun to get their required vitamin D,” says Dr. Lipner, “but that’s a myth.” If you’re deficient in vitamin D, you can increase your intake through diet. “Vitamin D is in a lot of dairy products,” Dr. Lipner says. So try incorporating eggs, milk, and fish like salmon into your daily diet.

There are also over-the-counter supplements that can boost your vitamin D levels, which you can take after discussing them with your doctor.

6. Treat a Sunburn

Did you forget to reapply your sunscreen after a dip in the pool? Did you miss a spot on your ears? When you notice a sunburn setting in, get into the shade immediately. “Taking a cool shower can also help,” Dr. Lipner says. You can cover burned areas with a cool compress, then follow with an application of thick moisturizer. “Aloe on the skin can be very soothing,” Dr. Lipner says. “And you may also want to take a little acetaminophen or ibuprofen to reduce inflammation.”

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