Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the most preventable risk factor for all types of skin cancer, including melanoma. But according to new research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the majority of Americans are not regularly using sunscreen to protect themselves from the sun's harmful UV rays.
Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) examined the results of a 2013 survey that asked participants how often they use sunscreen when outside in the sun for more than an hour. Only 14.3 percent of men and 29.9 percent of women reported that they regularly use sunscreen on both their face and other exposed skin.
A higher percentage of women reported that they regularly use sunscreen on their face (42.6 percent) than on other exposed skin (34.4 percent). This discrepancy was smaller among men, with 18.1 percent regularly using sunscreen on their face and 19.9 percent regularly using it on other exposed skin.
"Women may be more likely to use sunscreen on the face because of the anti-aging benefits, or because of the many cosmetic products on the market that contain sunscreen," says Dawn Holman, MPH, a behavioral scientist at the CDC and the study's lead author. "However, it's important to protect your whole body from the sun, not just your face."
According to the study, men were more likely than women to never use sunscreen, with 43.8 percent of men (compared to 27 percent of women) saying they never use sunscreen on their face and 42.1 percent of men (compared to 26.8 percent of women) saying they never use it on other exposed skin. The study also indicated that sunscreen use is particularly low among those with lower incomes, non-Hispanic blacks and individuals whose skin is less sensitive to the sun.
"Anyone can get skin cancer, so everyone should take steps to protect themselves from the sun," says board-certified dermatologist Mark Lebwohl, MD, FAAD, president of the American Academy of Dermatology (Academy). "The Academy recommends everyone choose a sunscreen with a label that states it is broad-spectrum, has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and is water-resistant."
More than 80 percent of the sunscreen users surveyed reported using an SPF of 15 or higher, while about 60 percent said they use a broad-spectrum formula. Almost 40 percent of users, however, were unsure whether their sunscreen provided broad-spectrum protection.
"Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause cancer," Dr. Lebwohl says. "Recent sunscreen regulations implemented by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration make it easier for consumers to see on the sunscreen label whether the product is broad-spectrum."
Follow these Academy tips for effective sunscreen use:
1. Choose a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
2. Apply sunscreen at least 15 minute before sun exposure.
3. Use enough sunscreen to cover your whole body (about an ounce for most adults), and apply it to all exposed areas, including the ears, scalp, tops of the feet and legs.
4. Ask someone else to help you apply sunscreen on hard-to-reach spots like your back.
5. Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, or immediately after swimming or sweating.
"Using sunscreen can reduce your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging, but it shouldn't be your only line of defense against the sun," Holman says. "It's best to combine sunscreen with other forms of sun protection. Communities can help with strategies like providing shade in outdoor areas, which can make it easier for individuals to stay sun-safe while enjoying the outdoors."
The Academy offers these additional sun protection tips:
1. Seek shade, especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are the strongest.
2. Wear protective clothing, including a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses, when possible.
3. Use extra caution near water, sand or snow, all of which can reflect and intensify UV rays.
4. If you want to look tan, use a self-tanning product, but continue using sunscreen with it.
"One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime," Dr. Lebwohl says. "The best way to reduce your skin cancer risk is to protect yourself from UV exposure."
For more information about how to prevent skin cancer, visit the Academy website SpotSkinCancer.org. There, you can learn how to perform a skin self-exam, download a body mole map for tracking changes in your skin and find a free SPOTme® skin cancer screening in your area. You can also find information about the Academy's Shade Structure Grant Program, which has awarded more than 325 shade structure grants to organizations across the country that provide shade for more than half a million individuals each day. SPOT Skin Cancer™ is the Academy's campaign to create a world without skin cancer through public awareness, community outreach programs and services, and advocacy that promote the prevention, detection and care of skin cancer.
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