There’s a lot of SPF info out there, but not all of it has sunk into our minds as well as a liquid sunscreen sinks into skin. Worse yet, much of it gets skewed when passed along, as in a game of telephone: “The SPF number indicates protection against only burn-causing UVB rays” evolves into “a high SPF prevents a sunburn,” which becomes “an SPF 100 completely protects your skin all day”—which is far from the truth. The real problem: The misconstrued messages can be life-threatening when it comes to sun safety.
To find out just how twisted the facts have become, I hit the beach, a doctor’s office, and the mall to spy on people’s sun habits—and what they were told by supposed experts—when no one (but me) was watching. Then I presented the bad habits and half-truths I uncovered to a panel of top dermatologists and asked them to straighten it out, so everyone can hear the right advice this summer—loud and clear.
SCOUTED: The Dermatologist’s Office
First off, remember this: Never go in for a skin check wearing makeup, nail polish, or sunless tanner (which can make it hard to accurately diagnose suspicious spots), and don’t wait until you’ve noticed something sketchy to set up an appointment. You should see your doc at least once a year, or every three to six months if you’ve previously had skin cancer or suspicious moles. For this story, I picked a dermatologist off Yelp, made an appointment for a skin check—and experienced a few missteps, which our experts helped clear up.
Appointment Misstep: My doctor wanted to dive right into checking my moles without talking to me about my history first, even though I had never been to her office before.
Pro Analysis: “The first few minutes of a skin-check appointment should be spent talking to your doctor about things like where you grew up, how much sun exposure you get, anything you’ve found on your body that seems abnormal, whether or not skin cancer runs in your family—and what kind it was—so they can get a better picture of you as a patient,” says Cheryl Karcher, M.D. The doctor should start the conversation, but if she doesn’t, don’t be shy.
Appointment Misstep: I thought she was fast—a little too fast—at checking me over, but I didn’t want to make a fuss.
Pro Analysis: You should be examined from head to toe—literally from your scalp to the bottom of your feet (it should take around 15 minutes). “Behind the ears, between the toes, and inside your belly button should all be scanned, as well as underneath your bra or underwear edges,” says Wang. The exception is the genital region. “You can ask your gynecologist to check for any moles or lesions during your annual checkup,” says Steven Wang, M.D. “If she sees something, be sure to bring it up the next time you see your dermatologist.”
Appointment Misstep: My derm used only her eyes for the exam—I didn’t see any instruments in the room at all.
Pro Analysis: “Most dermatologists should be able to spot an advanced stage of skin cancer with their eyes alone,” says Wang. “But with the skilled use of a dermatoscope”—a magnifying-type device that allows doctors to look deeper into layers of skin—”we can diagnose skin cancers in earlier stages.” (There should never be a charge for the use of this device.)
If you have too many moles to count, consider getting a set of top-to-toe body photos taken every couple of years (done by a separate company, and not typically covered by insurance). “Body photography is helpful if you have lots of moles, so we know for certain if there have been any changes in color or shape. It’s worth finding out if it’s the right investment for you,” says Wang.
There’s also an impressive new imaging technology called Constellation, which works using computer vision with high-definition cameras to produce a full-body map of your moles. “Then every time you go back, the system will do a new scan to tell you affirmatively which moles have changed since your last mapping,” Wang says. The cameras started rolling out to doctor’s offices in April on a trial basis, and the company hasn’t yet determined the price. For more info, go to constellation.io.
Appointment Misstep: She made sure I knew about the ABCDE’s of melanoma, but I had to ask about the signs of the other types of skin cancer.
Pro Analysis: Unfortunately, our experts admit this happens a lot. So be your own advocate. A pimple that scabbed over and won’t go away or a bump that is scaly and cracked and doesn’t heal could be signs of basal-and squamous-cell skin cancers, says Bobby Buka, M.D.—and should be brought to your doctor’s attention immediately. Also, it’s important to moisturize before your appointment. “If you’re really dry, it’s more difficult to determine if there’s something to be worried about. Flaking after you’ve moisturized tells us it could be something more than just dry skin,” says Karcher.
SCOUTED: The Beach
The sands of Coronado Beach in sunny San Diego make for good people-watching—and especially people with (or without) sunscreen. Observing and listening, I noticed the good (a man who toweled off and immediately reapplied after a swim); the bad (people skipping their hands, feet, neck, and ears); and the terrible (two super-pale girls who didn’t apply ‘screen at all). And then there were the gray-area scenarios below. How bad were they? Our experts weigh in.
Beach Scenario: A woman went to town with her sunscreen the second she arrived at 11 a.m. . . .then frolicked in the water, laid out in direct sunlight, and didn’t reapply until 2 p.m., when she told her friend she felt as if she was getting burned.
Pro Analysis: Waiting until you see or feel a burn is too late. “Whatever the SPF number, you need to reapply at least every 90 minutes—and sooner than that if you took a dip,” says dermatologist Cheryl Karcher, M.D., a clinical assistant professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. “No sunscreen is waterproof, and water-resistant formulas should keep you protected as you swim but don’t wear off uniformly.” For an option you can spray on wet skin post-waves, try Neutrogena Wet Skin Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($11, neutrogena.com).
Beach Scenario: A group of girls with dark skin tones totally skipped sunscreen.
Pro Analysis: “Even if you’re not getting burned by UVB rays, it doesn’t mean you’re not being aged by UVA rays,” says Karcher, referring to wrinkles and spots. Also, “you can get DNA damage, which could lead to skin cancer, way before you develop a sunburn or tan. This applies to skin of every color,” says dermatologist Steven Wang, M.D., director of dermatologic surgery and dermatology at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.
The active ingredients in physical sunscreens (titanium dioxide, zinc oxide) can be hard to rub in and may appear chalky on darker skin. Try a liquid marked sheer, such as SkinCeuticals Sheer Physical UV Defense Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($34, skinceuticals.com), or look for a broad-spectrum chemical sunscreen. Try Sun Bum Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion Advanced Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($16, trustthebum.com).
Beach Scenario: A woman asked her pal to pass the SPF 8 because she “wanted a tan.”
Pro Analysis: “I don’t consider an SPF 8 a sunscreen,” says Wang. “Most people apply only a third of the desired amount, so the real SPF is only around 2 or 3 with an SPF 8.” You need at least an SPF 30 (or SPF 50 if you’re fair-skinned) if you’ll be outside all day. Try Banana Boat Protect & Hydrate Sunscreen Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($8, at drugstores) or Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Ultra Radiance Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($9, at drugstores).
And speaking of getting a tan—don’t! Tanning oils should be banned, says dermatologist Bobby Buka, M.D., section chief of the department of dermatology at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City. “It’s like holding a magnifying glass up to the sun,” he says.
Beach Scenario: A man haphazardly misted on a spray sunscreen.
Pro Analysis: A spray is often the reason for a bizarre sunburn. If you don’t like creams (a safer bet, in Wang’s opinion), then be methodical about your technique. “People often mist these on as you would a hair spray—far from the body, letting the residue rain down—but that won’t offer adequate protection,” says Wang. “Hold it two to three inches from your body, spray slowly, then rub it in.” We like the continuous, targeted spray of Coppertone Sport AccuSpray Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($10, at drugstores).
SCOUTED: The Mall
One trip to the beauty counters of Fashion Valley mall in San Diego and the counterpeople had me second-guessing everything I—a longtime magazine beauty editor—know about sun protection. Our experts weed through the myths I heard.
Mall Myth: “A pea-size amount of facial sunscreen is all the protection you need for the day.”
Pro Analysis: Whether you’re at the beach or just heading out to lunch on a sunny day, you need at least a teaspoon of sunscreen to cover your face, ears, and neck, says Wang. But in addition to the amount, the other thing to consider is the longevity: “Anything you put on in the morning is not going to be there for you at the end of the day,” says Karcher. “You’ll need to reapply it before you leave work if the sun is still out.”
Mall Myth: “If your foundation or moisturizer has SPF in it, then you don’t need a separate sunscreen.”
Pro Analysis: Going to be outside for longer than it takes to walk from your car to your office? Then our experts agree you need to layer a separate facial sunscreen—like Aveeno Protect + Hydrate Lotion Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 for Face ($10, at drugstores)—underneath your makeup.
“But if you’re indoors all day, then yes, the SPF in your moisturizer or makeup should probably cover you for the incidental exposure you get going to work,” says Karcher. “Building windows can block UVB rays, so look for something that is going to block UVA”—i.e., make sure the sunscreen is broad-spectrum. Try Olay Total Effects Anti-Aging Moisturizer Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($18, at drugstores) or Shiseido Limited Edition UV Protective Compact Foundation Case SPF 36 (case, $8, and refill, $27, shiseido.com). Or meld foundation and moisturizer with a tinted formula like L’Oreal Paris Advanced Suncare Silky Sheer BB Face Lotion Broad Spectrum SPF 30 ($11, at drugstores), which helps even out skin tone while offering protection.
Mall Myth: “The sensitive skin around your eyes needs a separate eye cream with sunscreen.”
Pro Analysis: Our experts say this is mostly marketing—your facial sunscreen is usually tested to make sure it can be used around your eyes, too. But if your eyes always become watery and irritated from sunscreen, it’s worth a shot, says Karcher. “Look for a formula that uses physical ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which are less likely to sting your eyes.” Waxy sticks are also good: Since they typically don’t budge, nothing should seep into your eyes and cause irritation. One product with both benefits? CeraVe Sunscreen Stick Broad Spectrum SPF 50 ($10, at drugstores).
Mall Myth: “Lip gloss with SPF is enough protection for your lips.”
Pro Analysis: This actually brings up a few points, says Wang. Some people think a shiny gloss attracts UV rays the way tanning oil does. “Whether or not that’s really the case is unclear, but if it’s true, having a broad-spectrum SPF in the formula will protect you from this effect,” he says. But Karcher warns that gloss wears off far too quickly to serve as your only defense. Swipe on a waxy balm that has an SPF of at least 15, and reapply often (the lower lip gets a lot of sun exposure, which can result in squamous-cell skin cancer). Try Fresh Sugar Cherry Tinted Lip Treatment SPF 15 ($22.50, fresh.com).