5 sun safety mistakes to avoid this summer

AP Photo/J Pat Carter
AP Photo/J Pat Carter

While sitting at the beach over Memorial Day weekend, I pleaded unsuccesfully with my 14-year-old son to put on a shirt so he wouldn’t burn. He didn’t listen and was rewarded with red shoulders the next day, after which he declared that sunscreen doesn’t really work.

Well, actually it does, but not perfectly and not the same in everyone. While many of us fixate on the SPF number -- should I buy the 30 or the 90?—we usually don’t apply enough of it or reapply it throughout the day. So we get burned, especially those with paler skin, like my son.

In fact, nearly half of Massachusetts residents have reported that they get at least one sunburn a year, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the state has a melanoma rate that’s 26 percent higher than the national average.

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“We do have a lot of awareness about skin cancer in the state, so people may be more likely to head to doctors to check out their moles than in other states,” said Dr. Hensin Tsao, a dermatologist at Massachusetts General Hospital. “But we also have a lot more fair-skinned individuals from Northern European ancestry, and they often burn easier.”

That’s even more reason to avoid these common mistakes when it comes to protecting against the sun’s damaging ultraviolet rays.

Mistake #1. Putting too much stock in sunscreen. Some sunscreens don’t protect against both kinds of skin-damaging UV rays. The US Food and Drug Administration’s requirement that sunscreen labels reflect this won’t go into effect until the end of this year. “The SPF number just tells you how much extra time you can spend in the sun without getting burned, but for most fair-skinned people, that means a limit of about two hours with an SPF of 30,” said Dr. Rhoda Alani, chair of dermatology at Boston University School of Medicine.

And that’s if we’re applying enough—the amount that fills a shot glass is what’s needed to cover the entire body, said Tsao; we also need to reapply it every few hours, especially if we’re outside during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Also, sunscreen won’t protect your eyeballs, so remember to don sunglasses with UV protection.

Mistake #2. Thinking any old t-shirt will protect you from a burn. While I have yet to get a sunburn through my clothes, experts insist that can happen. “A regular white t-shirt only provides an SPF of 6,” said Alani. Shirts that are sheer or threadbare provide even less protection. Alani and Tsao, who both serve on the advisory board of the Melanoma Foundation New England, recommend using UV-protective clothing—especially if you’re spending time at the beach or on a boat where there’s little shade. “Look for clothes with an UPF [ultraviolet protection factor] above 30,” recommended Alani.

Mistake #3. Investing in shampoos or hair gels with UV blockers instead of a hat. There are a host of hair products offering “climate protection” for your hair—and by extension your scalp—but both Alani and Tsao said whatever SPF they offered was negligible. Better, they said, to wear a hat to protect against scalp burns. (And no, your hair can’t get sunburn.)

Mistake #4. Believing you can get a little extra sun if you take a daily aspirin. A study that made big headlines linked the regular use of aspirin or other nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen to a reduced risk of melanoma. While this finding, which was published in the online journal Cancer, is intriguing, Tsao said, it’s impractical to apply to your daily life. “It’s not an oral sunscreen by any means,” he added. Nor should people start taking aspirin or ibuprofen—which have side effects such as gastrointestinal bleeding—because they think it will protect them from skin cancer.

Mistake #5. Assuming any protective measure is as good as avoiding excess sun exposure. Those with an increased risk of melanoma—due to a family history or tendency to develop irregular moles—need to make an effort to avoid being outdoors during midday, said Alani, who runs a high-risk melanoma clinic. “My patients usually avoid the beach altogether,” she said, since even the best umbrella or UV-protective clothing can’t protect against all UV rays. The rest of us should just practice common sense, enjoying our time outdoors but heading into shady areas when possible. For my teenage daughter who’s looking to work on her tan, I’m purchasing a self-tanning cream.