Protect Your Skin

Photography by: Julie Dennis Brothers
Protect Your Skin

Of all the skin's archenemies, the sun glows (or glowers) at the top of the list. Unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation damages skin cells and DNA, which can trigger a chain of events that not only ages us years ahead of our time, but can also lead to skin cancer. The end result is skin that is physically unable to do what it's been programmed to do: keep itself healthy and youthful.

Going without sun protection is plain unwise. But a startling new survey conducted by the American Academy of Dermatology found that regular use of sunscreen has decreased sharply--from 54 percent in 1996 to 31 percent in 2003. To make matters worse, when we do use it, we're being far too stingy; studies show that most of us put on as little as 25 percent of the amount required to reach a product's promised protection factor. So why are we getting less serious about sun protection? There's a wide range of myths, mistakes and rationalizations. Read on to see if any of them hit a little too close to home. Your beautiful skin, your health and even your life may depend on it.

Rationale #1: "Sunscreen causes cancer."
The truth: "That's balderdash," declares Vincent DeLeo, M.D., chairman of dermatology at St. Luke's Roosevelt and Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City. "Of at least 20 large studies done with sunscreens of every type, not one has shown that sunscreens produce cancer."

Indeed, a slew of studies has shown that sunscreen use can prevent the most common forms of skin cancer. But there are limits to its effectiveness. "Sunscreen is only one component of a comprehensive protection program," says Darrell Rigel, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at New York University School of Medicine. Rigel suggests reapplying sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or strenuous activity; wearing protective clothing; and limiting outdoor activities between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's rays are strongest. Doing so will protect you from 80 percent of ultraviolet B exposure, the so-called burning rays, and 70 percent of ultraviolet A exposure, which is responsible for skin aging and plays a critical role in the development of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Rationale #2: "I need my vitamin D."
The truth: Vitamin D is a key nutrient for calcium regulation, stronger bones and disease protection, and its production is triggered by the sun's UVB rays. But using sunscreen won't leave you D-deficient. According to James M. Spencer, M.D., vice chairman of the department of dermatology at Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City, studies confirm that vitamin D levels in sunscreen users are normal.

The explanation is twofold: First, it only takes 10 minutes of sun exposure to manufacture a month's worth of vitamin D, and since no sunscreen completely blocks UV light, it's easy to get the necessary amount simply by taking a short walk at lunchtime with protection. Second, most of us get the recommended daily dose of 200 International Units of vitamin D via diet or supplements. (For example, just one cup of most types of milk contains 100 IU of this nutrient.)

Rationale #3: "I'm only outside for a few minutes."
The truth: If you add up all the incidental sun exposure the average person receives each week, it totals a whopping 18 hours. That's scary, since it doesn't take more than an afternoon stroll to rack up serious UV exposure. "Incidental damage incurred during 10 minutes of unprotected exposure can cause changes associated with premature skin aging, including fine lines, wrinkles and increased pigmentation," says Nick Lowe, M.D., clinical professor of dermatology at UCLA School of Medicine.

This kind of damage comes from UVA rays, which are constant throughout the day all year long--they even penetrate car windows! To keep skin safe, doctors now recommend applying sunscreen or protective moisturizer with a minimum SPF 30 every morning; both can be worn under makeup. Sunscreens labeled "broad spectrum" are more effective at shielding skin from UVA and UVB rays. The best of the bunch contain Parsol 1789 (a.k.a. avobenzone), a chemical sunscreen, or micronized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Try Eucerin Extra Protective Moisture Lotion SPF 30 ($10; at drugstores), with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide; Panama Jack Guide & Outfitter SPF 30 ($8; panamajack.com) with micronized titanium dioxide; or Aubrey Organics Titania Full Spectrum Sunblock SPF 25 with titanium dioxide ($8; aubrey-organics.com).