The tough part about avoiding most forms of cancer? Many factors, like genetics and diet, can play a role, so it's hard to figure out what keeps you safe. But skin cancer is different. It's one of the only cancers that, experts say, you can almost always dodge, because scientists are confident about what causes it. About 86% of melanoma (the most deadly type of skin cancer) cases are due to UV rays, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Sun exposure is something you can control, but you may need to take your prevention plan to the next level. Start using these tips—today.
1. You don't wear it every day, year-round.
Sure, you wear sunscreen every time you visit the park or beach, but you should be slathering it on exposed skin every day, year-round. It's easy to forget about sun protection unless it's sweltering, but if you're going to be outdoors—whether running errands, mowing the lawn or hitting the slopes—sunscreen is a must. UV rays are a factor 12 months out of the year.
2. You're only wearing a light cover-up over your swimsuit.
While a gauzy wrap or sheer top might look good, it won't do much for your skin—you need sun-protective clothing. 'Even a white T-shirt has an SPF of about 7, and when you get it wet, it's about a 3,' says Dr. Hale. To protect yourself from the sun's rays, opt for darker clothing with a tighter weave. For the best protection, choose coverups that are made with special sun-protective material. The item should have a UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor, listed on the tag or label; look for 30 or higher.
3. You're not paying attention when you reapply.
If you reapply sunscreen after sweating or swimming—or every 90 minutes—you're a step ahead of most. But make sure you're using enough to cover your entire body, and you're paying attention to detail. 'If you buy an 200ml bottle, it should be empty after about eight uses,' says Carolyn Jacob, MD, director of Chicago Cosmetic Surgery and Dermatology and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology.
Also, focus on areas that are easy to miss: Cover a prominent part in your hair along with your ears, lips and the edges of your bathing suit.
4. You're not buying sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection.
SPF tells you how well a product filters out UVB rays, which make you burn. But that number doesn't consider UVA rays, which can go through glass and reach you indoors or in your car. Plus, these rays 'penetrate deep into the skin to break down collagen and lead to premature aging,' says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, senior vice president for the Skin Cancer Foundation. Repeated exposure to both types of UV rays can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. So choose a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that also says 'broad-spectrum protection' or 'UVA/UVB' on the label.
5. You're not wearing sunglasses.
A pair of UV-filtering sunglasses—the bigger, the better—will guard the skin around your eyes (to help prevent basal cell cancer on the eyelids, skin cancer right above the eyebrows or melanoma in the eyes). Plus, shades also reduce your risk of macular degeneration, a cause of blindness.
6. You're not doing monthly self-exams.
You know you should see a dermatologist for an annual skin check, but you should also do a monthly head-to-toe self-exam. It's easy to miss new spots or changes to old ones if you aren't looking carefully and regularly.