Your guide to sunscreen and skin cancer prevention

Back view of a young woman tanning at the beach with sunscreen cream in a sun shape on her shoulder. Wear sunscreen for skin cancer prevention!


Here’s what you need to know about sunscreen, from ingredients to SPFs, and essential skin protection tips.


By Eric Dong, MD, Surgical Oncology, Nuvance Health


You’re gearing up for a fun summer day at the beach. You’ve got your hat, shades and flip-flops, but the number one item in your beach bag should be sunscreen! Wearing sunscreen is one of the simplest and most effective ways to protect yourself from skin cancer and premature aging.


But what ingredients should you look for and avoid? Do spray sunscreens work? How else can you protect your skin? Do you know when to get your moles checked? Here’s your go-to guide to sunscreen and skin protection.



The benefits of wearing sunscreen to prevent skin cancer


Studies show regular and proper use of sunscreen can prevent harmful UV rays from damaging your skin cells, lowering your risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 40% and melanoma — the most dangerous type of skin cancer — by 50%. So, slather on that sunscreen and keep your skin safe while enjoying the sun!



Read the bottle label for how to properly apply and re-apply sunscreen. Generally, initially apply sunscreen about 20 minutes before sun exposure for optimal effectiveness. Consider applying it before getting dressed to ensure full coverage.


Why should I care about skin cancer prevention?


Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Show the largest organ of your body love by protecting it as much as possible. Protecting your skin isn’t just about cancer prevention; it also helps delay the effects of aging. Sun damage can lead to premature wrinkles, age spots and crepey skin. It’s easier to prevent cancer and premature aging than treat or reverse it. By taking care of your skin now, you can enjoy a healthy, youthful appearance for years to come.


What ingredients should I look for in sunscreen to prevent skin cancer?


Choosing a safe and effective sunscreen can feel like a daunting task with so many options. To make it easier, look for sunscreens with broad-spectrum protection. Here are some key ingredients to look for:


  • Zinc oxide offers broad-spectrum protection and is gentle on the skin.

  • Titanium dioxide is a mineral that provides excellent skin protection from UV rays.

  • Avobenzone is a chemical ingredient that blocks UVA rays effectively.

  • Octocrylene stabilizes avobenzone and provides UVB protection.


These ingredients ensure comprehensive protection against both UVA and UVB rays, which are the culprits behind sunburn and skin cancer.


If you are prone to skin blemishes, you can also choose a non-comedogenic sunscreen that won’t block or clog the pores on your skin.


Are sunscreen ingredients safe?


There’s been a lot of buzz about whether the ingredients in sunscreen are safe. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other health organizations rigorously test sunscreen ingredients to ensure they are safe for use.


Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are particularly favored for their safety and efficacy. While some studies have raised concerns about certain chemical ingredients, the evidence overwhelmingly supports the safety of sunscreens. The risks of not using sunscreen far outweigh any potential risks associated with its ingredients. Always opt for products that meet FDA regulations and consult your primary care provider or dermatologist if you have any concerns.


What sunscreen ingredients should I avoid?


While many sunscreen ingredients are safe, some are concerning due to potential health and environmental impacts. Here are a few ingredients to be cautious of:


  • Oxybenzone and octinoxate are linked to hormonal disruptions and environmental harm, particularly to coral reefs.

  • Retinyl palmitate is a form of vitamin A that may speed up skin damage when exposed to sunlight.


Choose sunscreens labeled “reef-safe” or those containing zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to avoid these potentially harmful ingredients.


What SPF should I use?


SPF stands for sun protection factor and measures how well the sunscreen will protect your skin from UV rays. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends wearing an SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. In addition to the SPF, use water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays.


Should I use spray sunscreen?


Spray sunscreens are a popular choice because they are easy to apply. However, it’s important to use them correctly to ensure full coverage and effectiveness. Here’s how:


  • Spray generously: Apply a thick and even layer to all exposed skin.

  • Don’t spray it too far away from your body or outside if it’s windy because it may not cover your skin as much as you think.

  • Avoid inhalation: Do not spray directly onto your face. Instead, spray into your hands and then apply to your face.

  • Rub it in: After spraying, rub the sunscreen into your skin to ensure even coverage.


Spray sunscreens can be effective when used properly. But remember to reapply every two hours or to dry skin after sweating or swimming.


Who should wear sunscreen to prevent skin cancer?


Everyone should wear sunscreen! Whether you have fair skin that burns easily or darker skin that rarely burns, sunscreen is a must. There’s a common myth that people with darker skin don’t need sunscreen, but that’s far from true. While darker skin does have some natural protection against UV rays, it’s not enough to prevent skin damage and skin cancer. Everyone, regardless of skin color, should make sunscreen a daily habit to protect their skin.


Is tanning OK for skin cancer prevention?


You might love that sun-kissed look, but the idea of a “base tan” or “healthy tan” is a myth. Tanning, whether from the sun or tanning beds, increases your risk of skin cancer and speeds up skin aging — think wrinkles, fine lines and age spots. Instead of baking in the sun, opt for self-tanning products with natural, organic ingredients that give you a glow without harmful UV exposure.


In addition to wearing sunscreen, what else can I do to protect my skin from cancer?


Sunscreen is key to protecting your skin from the sun’s rays. Remember to cover your entire body, including your ears, hands and feet. Also, wear lip balm with SPF in it. There are also other steps you can take to protect your skin, including: 


  • Seek shade, especially during peak sun hours from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

  • Wear protective clothing such as lightweight, long-sleeved shirts, pants and wide-brimmed hats.

  • Re-apply sunscreen frequently if you are sweating or around sand or water, which reflects the sun’s rays.

  • Sport sunglasses because they protect your eyes and the delicate skin around them from UV rays. For ultimate protection, the American Academy of Ophthalmology recommends wearing sunglasses that have 100% UV protection.

  • Avoid tanning beds, which are just as harmful as the sun.


What is the difference between UVA and UVB rays?


Understanding the difference between UVA and UVB rays is crucial for effective sun protection:


UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are primarily responsible for premature aging and wrinkling (photoaging). They can also contribute to skin cancer growth. UVA rays are present during all daylight hours and can penetrate through windows and clouds.


UVB rays are the main cause of sunburn and play a significant role in the development of skin cancer. UVB rays are more intense during midday and can be blocked by windows. They affect the outer layer of the skin and are responsible for immediate tanning and burning.


Both UVA and UVB rays are harmful, which is why broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against both types are essential for your skin’s health.


How can I get rid of a sunburn quickly?


Oops! Those rays got to you and now you’re as red as a lobster. Here’s how to soothe a sunburn:


  • Cool the skin: Take a cool bath or shower to help reduce the heat.

  • Moisturize: Apply aloe vera or a soothing lotion to keep the skin hydrated.

  • Stay hydrated: Drink plenty of water to help your skin recover.

  • Avoid further sun exposure: Stay out of the sun until your skin heals.

  • Wear loose clothing to avoid irritation and allow your skin to breathe. 

  • Over-the-counter remedies: Use pain relievers like ibuprofen to reduce swelling and discomfort.



Know the signs of skin cancer: the ABCDEs of moles


While you can do everything possible to reduce the risk of skin cancer, it can still happen to anyone at any time. If you have a family history or have fair skin, you may be at more risk of skin cancer. Early detection is key to a positive outcome. Familiarize yourself with the ABCDEs of moles to spot potential problems early:


  • Asymmetry: One-half of the mole looks different from the other.

  • Border irregularity: The edges are uneven, scalloped or poorly defined.

  • Color: The color isn’t uniform and may include shades of brown, black or red, white or blue.

  • Diameter: Larger than 6 millimeters (about the size of a pencil eraser).

  • Evolution: Any change in size, shape, color or texture or if it starts to bleed.


If you notice any of these signs, see your primary care provider or dermatologist.


How can I get vitamin D while protecting my skin from cancer?


We all need vitamin D for healthy bones and a strong immune system. Our bodies produce vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. You can protect your skin and still get enough vitamin D without overexposing yourself to harmful UV rays. Here’s how:


  • Get moderate sun exposure: Short periods of sun exposure without sunscreen, about 10 to 15 minutes a few times a week, can help you maintain adequate vitamin D levels without risking skin damage.

  • Supplement your diet: The yolk of eggs and fatty fish, such as mackerel, salmon, tuna, trout and fish liver oils are good natural sources of vitamin D. Some beverages and foods are fortified with vitamin D, such as milk, orange juice and cereal; just be mindful of added sugars.

  • Consider supplements: Talk with your doctor if you’re concerned about getting enough vitamin D. They may suggest bloodwork to check your levels. If your vitamin D is low, they may suggest supplements.


By balancing sun protection and smart sun exposure, you can maintain healthy vitamin D levels and keep your skin safe.


Do I only need to wear sunscreen in the summer?


Nope! Sunscreen isn’t just for beach days and summer months. UV rays are present year-round, even on cloudy or snowy days. Winter sports enthusiasts and those who spend time outdoors in the colder months are still at risk of sun damage. Reflected UV rays from snow can be just as harmful as direct summer sun. Make sunscreen a part of your daily routine, regardless of the season, to keep your skin protected all year long.


The bottom line: Skin cancer prevention is crucial! Wear SPF 30 or higher, broad-spectrum sunscreens with effective and safe ingredients. Remember, everyone needs sun protection, regardless of skin tone. Avoid tanning, wear protective clothing and stay vigilant about skin changes. By taking these steps, you can reduce your risk of skin cancer and keep your skin looking healthy and youthful.


Dr. Eric Dong is a fellowship-trained surgical oncologist who cares for people with cancer including various types of skin cancer such as melanoma.