1 in 5 Americans Will Get Skin Cancer. Will It Be You?

Melanoma, the deadliest form, increasingly strikes younger adults. Here’s how to cut your risk.


To minimize that risk, here's what you can do:

Slather on sunscreen. "I often tell my patients to use an SPF 30 and to reapply their sunscreen every two hours," says Erin Gilbert, a dermatologist and spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. Some products boast a sun protection factor as high as 80. That isn't necessary, says Gilbert, as there is no good evidence that an SPF higher than 30 provides greater protection. What you really need to do, she advises, is "apply a shot glass worth of sunscreen daily to exposed areas like the face, neck, hands, and chest to achieve adequate coverage." Applying too thinly lowers the protection factor of the product.

With the wide array of sun protection products on shelves today, the Food and Drug Administration is implementing new regulations to help consumers determine the best sunscreen for them. Prior standards only addressed protection against UVB rays—UVB-shielding products just help protect against sunburns. Starting in December, manufacturers will be required to label those sunscreens that protect against both UVB and UVA rays as "broad spectrum." Those that carry the "broad spectrum" designation and have an SPF 15 or higher will show wording indicating they reduce the risk of sunburn, skin cancer, and premature aging with proper sun protection behaviors like limited sun exposure and use of protective clothing. Those that are not labeled "broad spectrum" or that have an SPF value between 2 and 14 only prevent sunburn and will carry a "skin cancer/skin aging alert." Other changes include the rule that manufacturers will no longer be able to call their product a "sunblock" or describe their sunscreen as "sweatproof" or "waterproof." And those sunscreens with an SPF value higher than 50 will simply be labeled as "SPF 50+."

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Cover up. Put on a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and resist the urge to expose too much skin. Yes, the bikini beckons and hemlines hike up when the temperature rises, but you'll be thankful years from now when people mistake you and your smooth skin for someone much younger. Buy sunglasses that offer both UVA and UVB protection. Ocular melanoma, or cancer of the eye, is diagnosed in about 2,500 Americans every year.

Seek some shade. Avoid the outdoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. if possible, as UVA and UVB rays are most intense with the midday sun.

Go bronze from a bottle. "Bronzers are temporary self-tanning products containing pigments or dyes that provide instant color. They can be easily removed with soap and water," says Ron Robinson, a cosmetic chemist and research executive who has developed products for companies like Clinique, Avon, and Revlon. "The main ingredient in self-tanners is dihydroxyacetone, a sugar molecule that reacts with the proteins in the skin to give the skin a tanned color that develops in a few hours." And while "bronzers and self-action tanners are safe and effective," says Tina Alster, a clinical professor of dermatology at Georgetown University Medical Center, it should be noted that they do not provide any sun protection and sunscreen is advised.

Be like Bugs Bunny. Studies show that you can get that golden glow from the food you eat. "Beta carotene is a form of vitamin A that has a yellow or orange pigment and is found in certain fruits and vegetables like carrots, winter squash, and cantaloupe," says Bailey. Eating a diet rich in beta carotene imparts a golden hue to the skin. "It's entirely non-toxic and looks good."

Some doctors say a little exposure to the sun is essential when it comes to vitamin D, also known as the "sunshine vitamin." Research has shown that a deficiency in vitamin D may increase the risk of some cancers, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, osteoporosis, tuberculosis, and the flu. The body produces vitamin D from cholesterol through a process activated by sunlight on the skin. Although this is the most efficient way to produce the vitamin, many dermatologists would rather you eat foods rich in vitamin D— such as fatty fish like tuna and salmon and fortified foods like dairy products and breakfast cereals—or take supplements instead of basking in the sun. The Institute of Medicine recommends a daily dose of 600 IU for most people under 70. "The amount of sun needed for adequate amounts of vitamin D causes suntans and sunburns," says Lawrence Samuels, chief of dermatology at St. Luke's Hospital in Chesterfield, Mo. "People die from melanoma and metastatic skin cancer. No one dies from vitamin D supplements."