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5 Steps to Prevent Skin Cancer

Using these sun smarts today can help stave off skin cancer tomorrow.
Skin protection
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Tom Corbett/

The ozone layer is shrinking, the rates of skin cancer are rising and you can still recall the blistering sunburns you had as a kid or those deep dark tans you (regrettably) worked so hard on as a teen. But does that mean you're doomed to get skin cancer? Absolutely not. "Careful sun avoidance and safe sun practices at any age can greatly reduce your risk," says Barbara Gilchrest, M.D., professor of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine. Nearly 80% of your lifetime sun exposure happens after the age of 18, so it's still vitally important to protect yourself from the sun—and the havoc it wreaks on your skin. What's more, new research shows that what you consume and how you treat the damage can help further safeguard your body's largest organ. The bonus: The steps you take to ward off skin cancer also fight wrinkles and other signs of aging. Take action today.

Use Sunscreen (Correctly)

Avoiding the sun as much as possible is unquestionably the most effective way to prevent both potentially fatal melanomas and other less dangerous, but still serious, skin cancers. Ultraviolet light generates free radicals, highly charged molecules that damage cells and DNA, and suppress the cancer-fighting immune system. Experts recommend seeking the shade, heading to the pool or beach in the late afternoon (rather than midday when the sun is strongest), sporting a broad brim hat and long sleeves and wearing sunscreen—a lot of it! A recent study from Australia found that adults who were told exactly how to apply sunscreen and maintained a strict daily regimen were 50% less likely to develop melanoma than those who were told to wear sunscreen as they always had. Here's what you need to do.

Slather It On: Most people use way too little sunscreen. "If you're applying it to your face, neck and arms, you need 2 teaspoons," says Melody Eide, M.D., a dermatologist with the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit. For your entire body, use at least a shot glass full (about 1 ounce). That means a family of four should go through nearly an entire 8-ounce bottle of sunblock in just one visit to the beach—even more if you're there longer than two hours and reapplying after swimming and sweating. Studies show people tend to use one-quarter to one-half of the recommended amount, turning that SPF 30 into a 10.

Read the Labels: Buy a sunscreen with at least SPF 30 and broad-spectrum coverage, and check for these ingredients: avobenzone, mexoryl, oxybenzone, titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. Or just look for the Skin Cancer Foundation's new "Active" seal of recommendation, which is found on many brands, including Anthelios, Banana Boat Ultra Sunblock Lotion, Coppertone Sport Sunscreen and store-brand offerings from Rite Aid and Walgreens.

For Everyday Use: When you're not planning to be out for extended periods, you still should wear an all-day moisturizer with a sunscreen. Seek out the Skin Cancer Foundation's "Daily Use" seal for products that have SPF 15 and some UVA protection but are less protective than those with the "Active" seal.

A Layer of Protection: While you always need sunscreen on exposed skin, ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) clothing can protect the rest of your body. "There's no chance you'll miss a spot," says Deborah S. Sarnoff, M.D., senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation. Look for UPF clothing with a rating of at least 30—a typical cotton T-shirt has a UPF of 5.