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Why SPF should be your BFF

How much do you know about skin protection and the dangers of sun exposure? Even though the sun feels great after a long winter, sunscreen is critical (and not just seasonally). Dr. Clarissa Yang, Chief of Dermatology at Tufts Medical Center answers common questions about sunshine in the city and how to protect our skin. 

A woman putting on sunscreenHow does SPF work? 

When using sunscreen, the SPF (Sunscreen Protection Factor) is a ratio of how much longer you can stay in the sun without getting sunburned. For example, if you are able to stay out in the sun for 30 min without burning and you put on an SPF 30, you can theoretically stay in the sun for 90 min without getting a sunburn.

How high of an SPF should we look for and how often should it be applied?

Look for sunscreens with at least an SPF 30 and apply 30 minutes prior to going outdoors. Try to stay out of the direct sunlight between 10AM and 4PM, which is when the sun’s rays are the strongest. It is important to reapply at least every two hours and always after swimming or heavy sweating/exercise.

Why is it so important to prevent sunburns?  

Sunburns increase your risk of skin cancer and aging. You are most at risk for developing skin cancer if you have a history of multiple sunburns. Other risk factors include:

  • Blue or green eyes with fair skin
  • A family history of melanoma
  • A history of chronic sun exposure
  • A high number of moles
  • You have had biopsy-proven atypical moles
  • A history of tanning bed exposure

Can I ever use a tanning bed even if it is just for a base tan? 

No, even one use of a tanning bed has increased risk of skin cancer development.

Young girl holding her hand up to block the sunIs there anything else I can do to protect myself from the sun besides applying sunscreen, if I have many of the risk factors? 

Sun protection with clothing is even better than sunscreen, so cover up when you can. Maintaining a good immune system is also important. You can do this by eating a healthy diet full of antioxidants and getting plenty of sleep. Using topical antioxidants such as vitamin C, E, ferulic acid and retinoids can help as well.


What are some skin cancer symptoms I should look out for?

There are different types of skin cancer. The most dangerous is melanoma, a tumor of melanin forming cells. Always remember the ABCDE’s of melanoma:

  • Asymmetry
  • Border irregularity
  • Color changes
  • Diameter >6mm
  • Evolution (any changes – itching, bleeding, pain, enlarging)

Non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell/squamous cell carcinomas are typically pink lesions that do not resolve. They get bigger with time and may bleed spontaneously or scale. It is important to note that incidence of skin cancer goes up with age.

Is there a cure for skin cancer?

For many decades, late-stage melanoma had a low survival rate - only 6-10% survived within a five year timespan. However, in the last eight years, there have been significant advances in treatment options in immune and targeted therapy for melanoma. This has made significant differences in patient survivals; however, it is still so important to catch it early. When caught in the early stages, skin cancers are curable through surgical excision, so make sure to do regular self-checks and to schedule annual skin screenings.