How to Protect Your Skin in Three Easy Steps

Summertime and all the time is the right time for skin care!


Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash

Did you know your skin covers 21 square feet (roughly a kitchen table), weighs 9 pounds (think bowling ball) and is 15 percent of your body weight? And it renews every 28 days! Our skin may be the most overlooked indicator of our health, so let’s take a closer look at how to take better care of it in three easy  steps.

First, let’s talk the biggest risk to our skin’s health and vitality, and that’s skin cancer. Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers and also one of the most treatable. There are three skin cancers, and they are named for the type of cells that become malignant: basal or squamous skin cancer; basal cell is cancer found on skin that is exposed to sun and the most common skin cancer. Squamous cell is skin cancer that is found in skin tissue. The third skin cancer is melanoma, a more serious and aggressive skin cancer found in cells that make the pigment melanin, like a mole. A change on any area of your skin can be the most common form of skin cancer. Any new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, or any change in the size, shape, or color of an existing skin mark is often the first sign of cancer risk and can occur anywhere on the body, whether that part has been exposed to sun or not.

So, on to step one of good skin health: How do we best check for skin cancer? There are two ways to check for skin cancer. One is a self-exam, and one is an annual skin cancer physical. For a self-exam, you check yourself from head to toe, including the bottom of your feet. You might get a close friend or family member to help. Using a mirror, you look at your face, ears, neck, scalp, hands, front and back of your body, raising your arms and legs. Take note of all your birth marks, moles, and any other markings and their look and feel. Take photos if you desire. If you see something that is of concern, you may visit a medical professional who will conduct a skin cancer screening. They will map your body for your moles and marks, and generate a report of any concerns, with appropriate treatment recommendations. It is recommended you do this annually, more often if you have a history of skin cancer in your family.

Step two of good skin health: Learning about the risk for our skin. Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, no matter your ethnic heritage or the shade of your skin. Sun exposure is the main cause behind skin cancer (including your exposure to the sun over your lifetime) because the ultraviolet light found in sunlight is the source of harmful and damaging UV radiation. There are two types of ultraviolet sun rays: UVB, the rays that cause sunburn, and UVA, the rays that cause tanning and premature aging, like wrinkles.  Protecting our skin against both is important because UVB rays play the greatest role in causing skin cancers, and UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin.

Step three of good skin health: How do we best protect our skin? First, the ways to do so without sunscreen: Staying out of the sun at midday is best, that’s between 10am and 2pm. If you are outdoors, you should always be wearing sunglasses. Even if it is partly sunny! Wearing sunglasses protects your eyes and the skin around your eyes. Research has found that frequent exposure to sunlight can contribute to the formation of cataracts, which is a clouding of the lens.

Next, cover your head: a visor or a hat with a 2 to 3-inch brim, even a baseball cap can work as long as it has fabric that drapes down the side and neck. If you love a straw hat at the beach because it’s cooler, make sure it is tightly woven.

As for clothing, long-sleeved shirts and pants provide the most protection if you are outdoors hiking or working in the sun. Rash guards and UPF-marked clothing are best for the beach, as is an umbrella. UPF means Ultraviolet Protection Factor and in clothing, it does not allow UVA and UVB rays to penetrate fabric.

The last non sunscreen-related protection you can do is to check the UV Index. The UV Index predicts sun exposure risk each day in your area on a scale of 1 to 11+ and was developed by the National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. You can find the UV Index online.

Now, protecting your skin with sunscreen. There are so many questions about what kind, how much SPF, how to protect the kids, so let’s break it down.

 Adults: always use sunscreen; be a good role model! Active ingredients in sunscreens function as either mineral or chemical filters that keep harmful rays from the skin. Also known as a mineral sunscreen, physical sunscreen stays on top of the skin like an umbrella and starts working right away to deflect UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work a little differently in that instead of deflecting, they absorb UV radiation and reduce how much penetrates the skin. Both are generally recognized as safe and effective.

Sunscreen ingredient safety has been in the news lately, so do your research as to personal preference. What is important is SPF. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Use a protection of at least 15; many doctors will tell you 30. The number 30, for example, indicates that it would take you 30 times longer to sunburn than if you used no sunscreen at all.  If your sunscreen says broad spectrum it means the formulation will protect you from both UVA (skin cancer) and UVB (sunburn) rays. The size of a golf ball is a good amount for your entire body and reapply every 2 hours when in the sun. As for gel, stick, spray or lotion, whatever form you will use consistently — and adequately is the right form for you.

Important tips for adults: 1. Use your bug spray first, then your sunscreen. Avoid using sunscreen that contains bug repellent; it has been found to be less effective. 2. Prescription medications can affect sunscreens, so consult with your medical professional on any of your medications.

Let’s talk or babies and toddlers:  For infants under 6 months, the best form of sun protection is a hat and shirt; sunscreen is not recommended. Keep infants out of direct sun as much as possible because their skin is not yet protected by melanin. When you take your baby outside:

  • Use your stroller’s canopy or hood. If you can’t sit in a shady spot, use an umbrella.
  • Avoid midday. Take walks in the early morning or late afternoon.
  • When driving, consider buying a UV shield that can be hung over any window that allows sunlight to reach the car seat.
  • For toddlers, you might consider testing on the inside wrist before an outing to see if there is any reaction. And then all the adult SPF guidelines apply. Gel sticks are a favorite of kids, and if you use spray, spray in the hands, then rub on.

Just a note on higher SPF products: the FDA has proposed a limit to SPF values and because of the coronavirus, it was postponed but expected to be reintroduced soon. Some food for thought: the FDA contends that SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading,” citing these reasons:  high-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals than lower-SPF sunscreens do and some of these ingredients may pose health risks when they penetrate the skin; some may even trigger allergic reactions; and finally, some people may stay in the sun longer when using a high SPF.

You now have the knowledge to better protect your skin and can use these steps for you and your loved ones to stay healthy and safe – all year round.