Reduce Your Skin Cancer Risk: Sun Protection and SPF Guide
At times, skincare routines can feel complex. It seems there’s a cream or serum for anything and everything from wrinkle prevention to pore control. But experts say, no matter how simple your skincare routine is–don’t skip your SPF protection.
Why? Skin cancer prevention is a big one, but UV rays from the sun can cause all kinds of damage that can accelerate skin aging and irritation. Integrative medicine can help you enjoy your fun in the sun responsibly, while protecting your skin from sun damage.
We’ll give you all the info on which kinds of sunscreens are best, whether SPF 100+ is really necessary, and you’ll leave knowing the best ways to protect your skin while still boosting vitamin D levels responsibly.
What Exactly Is SPF?
In short, SPF stands for sun protection factor–surprisingly self-explanatory–we know! But the number behind it is a measure of protection the sunscreen offers in comparison to unprotected skin.
For example, SPF 30 allows about 3% of the sun’s rays to hit your skin, while an SPF of 50 allows about 2%. Simply put, an SPF 30 means it would take you 30 times longer to get a sunburn than if you weren’t wearing any sunscreen.
Is a higher SPF necessarily better? You’ll learn why you should always opt for a higher SPF in a moment.
So, what exactly does sunscreen protect your skin from? Well, it’s actually a spectrum of ultraviolet light that’s invisible to humans. And within the UV spectrum, there are two main types that cause damage to your skin:
- UVB rays cause sunburn and play a key role in developing skin cancer.
- UVA rays cause skin damage that’s visible as a tan, and leads to skin aging and wrinkles.
It’s important to note that both UVA and UVB rays cause skin cancer.
Do I really Need SPF 100+?
The short answer is yes, always choose a higher SPF when available, and here’s why.
For a while, the FDA believed that there was no additional benefit for anything 50+, but now we know that’s not the case.
In 2011, the FDA proposed a labeling cap on any SPF above 50, so that anything higher was just labeled as 50+. They believed there really wasn’t a significant benefit in anything higher than an SPF of 50 (1).
But a study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology determined that there definitely was greater sun protection with an SPF 100 when compared to SPF 50+.
In this study, doctors treated 199 participants by applying SPF 50+ to one half of their faces, and SPF 100+ to the other. After about six hours of sun exposure, 110 participants were sunburned on their SPF 50 side, and only ten were sunburned on the SPF 100 side (2).
When you think about it, the difference between SPF 50 and SPF 100 doesn’t seem like much, until you realize that you’re getting twice the exposure with SPF 50 than you are SPF 100. Over time, that adds up, and can increase your risk of skin cancer and skin damage.
Another study in 2020, found similar results comparing the actual use of SPF 50 to SPF 100 over a period of 5-day sun exposure (3).
Real-World Sunscreen Use Isn’t Always Perfect
You’ll notice that with most sunscreens, the measure of their SPF is under ideal conditions, i.e. what they measured in a laboratory. But humans are rarely (or never) as accurate as lab conditions, which means the proper use and application of your SPF is a big deal…
Because not using sunscreen properly means less protection for you.
Here are some tips:
- Use the recommended amount
- Reapply when needed (after sweating, or after the recommended time frame)
- Carry sunscreen with you when traveling or out for the day
- Wear a hat or protective clothing
- Minimize time spent in peak sun (typically 10am to 4 pm, depending on your location)
Unfortunately, people who apply sunscreen with a higher SPF are more likely to spend longer in the sun, not wear protective clothing like hats or coverups, and are less likely to reapply sunscreen to continue protection.
In summary: opt for the higher SPF, reapply, and use enough.
What Kind of Sunscreen Is Best, Chemical or Mineral?
Now you know you need a high quality sunscreen with a high to moderate SPF rating, but when you get into the sunscreen market, they’re generally split into two categories: chemical filters, and mineral filters.
Here’s a quick breakdown of chemical sunscreens vs. mineral sunscreens:
Mineral filters are things like zinc oxide and titanium oxide. They work by creating a physical barrier in between your skin and the sun’s rays. Despite their “natural” marketing, these minerals don’t exist naturally “in nature” though, and there is some debate about the sustainability of their manufacturing. However, these sunscreens are typically lower in endocrine disrupting compounds.
Pros: Can go out into the sun immediately, a “cleaner” option. Cons: Can irritate acne-prone skin, often leaves a white cast on the face, needs reapplication about every 2 hours.
Chemical filters include avobenzone, oxybenzone, octinoxate. They work by absorbing the sun’s rays, so your skin doesn’t have to. These sunscreens are lightweight and effective but can sometimes contain small amounts of endocrine disrupting compounds.
Pros: Lightweight, looks better under makeup, inexpensive. Cons: Can contain endocrine disruptors, recommended to apply up to half an hour before sun exposure.
Many sunscreens are a blend of chemical and mineral filters.
What About “Natural” Sunscreens?
There are many “natural” sunscreen recipes that claim to act as nature’s sunscreen. For example, red raspberry seed oil and carrot seed oil can mediate some of the oxidative damage resulting from sun exposure when applied topically, but they do not filter the sun’s rays effectively to prevent burning.
These blends may offer a very small amount of sun protection, but they do not act as a sunscreen, and you can still get a sunburn because they do not provide an adequate filter for the sun’s UVA or UVB rays.
Getting Vitamin D Responsibly
Vitamin D is incredibly important, and is one vital nutrient that you don’t want to compromise–impacting everything from mood, immune function, to cancer risk, and more.
But it’s important to get your vitamin D through responsible sun exposure to mediate the risk of skin cancer. And if you’re wondering if your skin will still make vitamin D if you use a daily SPF…
The answer is: yes, your skin will still synthesize vitamin D. Because SPF use isn’t perfect, and during the warmer months, we’re exposed to sunlight frequently, you can still optimize vitamin D production from your skin.
In addition, you can boost your vitamin D intake with foods as well, for example:
- Nuts + seeds
- Fish, such as tuna, salmon, and sardines
- Egg yolks
- Cod liver oil
- Cheese and other dairy (if you tolerate it)
Not sure your diet is adequate in vitamin D? Browse high-quality vitamin D supplements here.
Common Myths About Sun Protection & Skin Cancer
There’s a lot of information out there about sunscreen and sun protection that isn’t always the most accurate. So we’d like to take a moment to set the record straight so you have the maximum protection from skin cancer while still being able to enjoy your time outdoors.
You don’t need sunscreen if you’re inside, or if it’s cloudy. You can still get a sunburn when it’s cloudy. Plus, UV rays still penetrate windows, including those in your car and home.
Anything over SPF 30 is the same. The higher the SPF, the more protected you are, and the more you can decrease your risk of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is only a concern for old people. Melanoma is the most common form of cancer in younger adults.
A base tan prevents sunburns and skin damage. There’s no such thing as a safe tan or a tan that prevents sunburns. When ultraviolet rays from the sun or tanning booth hit your skin, they damage the DNA of your skin cells.
Tanning beds don’t pose a skin cancer risk. Tanning beds emit the same harmful UV rays as the sun, and in greater amounts.
Dark-skinned people don’t get skin cancer. No one is immune to skin cancer. People of all skin colors can develop skin cancer. Skin cancer does occur more frequently in lighter-skinned people, but skin cancer is often diagnosed at a more advanced stage in people with more melanin in their skin.
This may be because both doctors and patients may not be considering the possibility of skin cancer until it’s too late.
What’s Your Risk of Skin Cancer?
Sunscreen and adequate sun protection are important, but because it’s important to take an integrative and personal approach to skin cancer prevention, you can assess your level of risk.
Sun exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer, but there are other causes:
- UV exposure from tanning beds
- Family history of skin cancer
- A weakened immune system
- People with fair skin and freckles, and multiple or unusual moles also face a higher skin cancer risk.
Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer with Integrative Medicine
Getting outdoors is incredibly beneficial for overall health, but it’s important to properly protect your skin during peak times when UV rays are the highest to minimize your risk of skin cancer and sun damage.
Choose an SPF that you’ll use consistently, be responsible about your sun exposure, and work with your integrative medicine doctor to determine your level of individual skin cancer risk.