The “sunscreen paradox” has confounded doctors of late: As more and more people use sunscreen, rates of melanoma and other skin cancers are going up.
The statistics on all types of skin cancer are sobering:
Invasive melanoma cases diagnosed annually increased 27% over the past 10 years.
The rate of basal cell carcinoma (BCC) has risen in all age groups in the country at a rate of nearly 10% each year, according to the National Library of Medicine.
Yale Medicine reports that squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) has risen to nearly 1 million diagnosed cases in the U.S. per year.
Even cases of Merkel cell carcinoma, the rare, aggressive skin cancer that cause the recent death of singer Jimmy Buffet, is projected to jump to over 3,200 cases per year over the next 2 years.
Why is this happening? A new study from McGill University in Montreal might have solved some of the mystery: Many people may think sunscreen gives them free rein to tan or stay out in the sun as long as they want to.
Patients have told me that they think it is safe to tan if they are wearing sunscreen, said James Ralston, MD, president of the Dermatology Center of McKinney in McKinney, TX.
The reality is that there is no safe way to tan. Every time you tan, you damage your skin. As this damage builds, you speed up the aging of your skin and increase your risk for all types of skin cancer.
You’re Not Using Enough Sunscreen
People rarely use as much sunscreen as they should, says Vivian Bucay, MD, a dermatologist practicing in San Antonio, TX, and a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation.
To achieve the SPF value, you should apply 2 tablespoons — equivalent to about a shot glass full — of sunscreen to your entire body, and a nickel-sized dollop to your face, she said.
Cover often-missed spots like your eye area, the tops of and behind your ears, your hands, and the back of your neck. Don’t forget about your lips, either.
I tell patients to carry a lip product with SPF so they can reapply after eating, Bucay said.
Reapply every 2 hours, or immediately after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.
You’re Not Using Sunscreen Year-Round
I’ve heard patients say they didn’t put on sunscreen because it was a cloudy or snowy day, says Ralston.
Some ultraviolet light passes through clouds, and clouds reduce warmth. Without that warning sensation of warmth, people are at increased risk of overexposure to UV light, especially UVA, which is relatively unaffected by cloud cover.
You Don’t Wear Sunscreen Indoors
There are unexpected ways in which one may get sun exposure without realizing it, Sivendran said.
For example, the sun’s rays penetrate through windows, so sitting near a window for a prolonged period can increase skin cancer risk. It is important to wear sunscreen indoors to reduce this.
If you’re inside a car or traveling in a window seat by plane, bus, or train, this rule also applies.
The sun’s rays penetrate through windows, so even short trips in the car add up over years and cause significant sun damage.
Avoiding the sun’s harmful rays at peak strength hours – between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. – and seeking shade can reduce your risk,” Sivendran said. “Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. There is also stylish, lightweight, sun-protective clothing you can wear year-round.”
Make these moves a habit, and you’ll easily stay sun-safe.