Who’s the worst at protecting their skin from the sun and skin cancer, men or women? Men are, according to the latest study on sunscreen use by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Only 14.3 percent of men said they regularly used sunscreen.
But women don’t win any awards for their efforts either.
Only 29.9 percent apply it to their face and bodies on a regular basis. And more than a third of both sexes who do use sunscreen weren’t sure whether the type they used provided broad-spectrum protection needed to protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
“UVB are higher energy and are responsible for sunburn,” explained senior analyst Sonya Lunder of the Environmental Working Group, a research advocacy group that publishes a list of best and worst sunscreens every year. “UVA rays are lower energy and are more constant year round, can go through glass and they are related to skin aging, known to depress the immune system, and are linked to melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.”
Not surprisingly, the study found more women use sunscreen on their face than other parts of the body. Yet melanoma is most often found on the trunk of the body, says Dawn Holman, a behavioral scientist in CDC’s Division of Cancer Prevention and Control.
Melanoma is the third most-common cancer in adolescents and young adults, and costs our society over $3.3 billion each year. According to the surgeon general’s report on skin cancer, “If current trends in cancer death rates continue, melanoma will be the only cancer objective included in Healthy People 2020 that will not meet the targets for reductions in cancer deaths.”
One key goal that research supports: avoid sunburns, no matter your age. The prevailing wisdom that childhood sunburns are what lead to future melanoma was overturned by this analysis. In fact, the risk actually increases throughout life with each additional sunburn.
“Each phase of life matters, so even if you’ve never used sunscreen in the past, you’re still going to reap benefits by starting today,” said Holman. “By staying sun-safe and avoiding sunburn, you still have a chance to reduce your risk.”
Fortunately, it’s easy to shield yourself from the sun. Try to stay out of it during the hottest times of the day, usually 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., wear protective clothing, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and apply a protective amount of sunscreen every two hours.
Related: Don’t forget your nose: sun screen 101
But not all sunscreens are created equal, says Consumer Reports. They tested 34 sunscreens in their in-house lab and reported on 2015’s best and worst picks for their online and magazine subscribers.
Almost a third of the sunscreens tested had SFP (sun protection factor) below what was promised; they did find 15 to recommend, and named the following as “Best Buys”:
No-Ad Sport SPF 50 lotion for $10 Equate Sport Continuous Spray SPF 30 for $8 from Walmart Equate Ultra Protection lotion SPF 50 for $9 from Walmart
But the FDA thinks you may want to reconsider spray-on sunscreens. Yes, they are convenient, and easier to put on squirming kids, but the FDA has raised concerns that consumers may not apply enough spray to reach the full SPF value. The Environmental Working Group agrees. They’ve added sprays to the “Hall of Shame” section of their 2015 sunscreen review.
“You may not be getting the sun protection you think you are, and they can be inhaled and we don’t know what they do to the sensitive tissues of the lungs,” said Lunder. “The FDA has requested data from sunscreen manufacturers and says that if that data doesn’t allay their concerns they will soon ban sprays from the market.”
Holman agrees. “With lotions you know how much you are applying to your skin, and that’s important because you want to know that you are putting on an adequate amount to protect your skin.”
High SPF may not be better
Another area of concern for the FDA: sunscreens that exceed an SPF of 50. Holman said the FDA is considering “a proposed rule to limit sunscreen labeling to 50+ but not go higher.” Lunder explained that “as the SPF gets higher and higher, you really aren’t getting a proportional increase in the amount of UVA protection because the chemical ingredient levels allowed to be added to U.S. sunscreens maxes out around 20 SPF.”
“We believe SPF higher than 50 is misleading, leading people to misuse sunscreen by putting on less and not applying it as often,” added Lunder. “When you see an SPF of 110 you think ‘Wow, I won’t need anything else, I’ll just put a little of this on and be fine all day’.”
It’s more than sunscreen
The best way to stay sun safe is to plan ahead and choose options based on the activity you’re be doing.
“If you’re going to be out on a boat all day, any SPF may not be as good as covering up with a shirt and wearing a hat and sunglasses,” said Linder.
“The type of clothing matters,” said Holman. “A white T-shirt is going to provide less protection than a darker fabric, and think of the weave of the fabric or the hat. Take a straw hat; if it’s too loosely woven, you get too much sunlight.”
A great tool to use is the UV index provided by the Environmental Protection Agency. You can type in your city and state or zip code and find your UV forecast.
“The higher the index, the more protection you need,” said Holman. “If sunscreen works, great, but you can also seek shade, use clothing, darker not light clothing, to reflect the sun. The key here is to find something that works for you.”