Sun protection starts with sunscreen (every. single. day). Then a big hat. Extra points for UPF clothing. But what else can you do to safeguard your skin? Apparently, a lot.

By Victoria Kirby and Marnie Schwartz
Updated May 08, 2020
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In the sun-protection constitution, these truths are self-evident: that everyone should wear broad-spectrum sunscreen on their face, neck, chest, and hands every day; that you need to reapply it every two hours when outdoors; and that whatever you do to shield your skin from direct sunlight is a good thing.

These principles are common knowledge—as is the startling stat that UV exposure is linked to about 90 percent of skin cancer cases and nearly every form of skin aging. You go for a run sheathed in SPF 50, a wide-brimmed hat firmly in place, charting a path in the shade, confident that you’re taking every precaution to guard yourself against the sun.

Turns out, that’s just the half of it.

While experts say we’ve come a long way since the days when SPF 8 was considered adequate, they stress that staying healthy and smooth-skinned is about more than just diligent sunscreen use. Of note: The FDA announced that it is reviewing the safety and efficacy of chemical UV filters in sunscreen.

“For now, I recommend mineral sunscreen, which the FDA has already cleared. I also tell my patients that SPF is only one piece of the sun-safety puzzle,” says Shape Brain Trust member Mona Gohara, M.D., a dermatologist in New Haven, Connecticut, and an associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University. “We need a 360-degree strategy that takes into account what we put into our body, our lifestyle, and all forms of light exposure.” (Related: Is This Ingredient In Mineral Sunscreen Doing More Harm Than Good?)

Science also has a better understanding of how light-induced skin damage occurs—and more importantly, how to halt it. Here are eight simple sun protection tips to maximize your efforts.

Consider supplements.

“We know that sun exposure damages DNA, which can lead to skin aging and skin cancer—but sunscreen can’t repair DNA,” says Beverly Hills dermatologist Ronald Moy, M.D., a senior vice president of the Skin Cancer Foundation.

One supplement, however, may. A double-blind study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that taking a 500-milligram supplement of a form of vitamin B3 (niacin) called niacinamide twice a day reduced the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancers by 23 percent.

“I tell patients it’s the number-one supplement they should be taking,” says Dr. Moy. “We have DNA-repair enzymes naturally in our body, but they start diminishing after age 30. Niacin helps boost them back up.”

Dr. Gohara agrees that certain supplements can increase your body’s defense against UV damage. For sun protection, she recommends Heliocare, an all-natural supplement featuring a fern extract called Polypodium leucotomos. “It’s been around for 15 years and has strong independent clinical studies to back up its claims,” she says.

Eat your sun protection.

Obviously, we’re not suggesting that you drizzle sunscreen on your salad. We’re talking about foods and supplements that may lower your chances of developing skin cancer.

“A diet rich in fruits and vegetables, like the Mediterranean diet, helps prevent all cancers, and that includes skin cancer,” says dermatologist Ronald Moy, M.D., a senior vice president at the Skin Cancer Foundation. A recent study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that women who closely followed the eating style—which includes lots of produce, legumes, whole grains, and olive oil—had a 17 percent lower risk of all skin cancer and a 28 percent lower risk of melanoma.

Antioxidants in these foods may help neutralize free radicals generated by sun exposure and reduce inflammation, protecting against skin cancer, says study author Marina Kvaskoff, Ph.D. Be sure to also consume seafood, nuts, seeds, and tomatoes: Research has shown that the omega-3 fatty acids in fish, walnuts, and flaxseeds may help counteract immune system suppression caused by sun exposure, and the carotenoids in tomatoes can help your skin block UV rays.

Avoid certain fish.

While the healthy fats in fish may offer sun protection and lower your skin cancer risk, overdoing it on high-mercury types like swordfish could have the opposite effect. In a recent study, people with higher levels of mercury in their blood had almost double the risk of nonmelanoma skin cancer than those with low levels, the British Journal of Dermatology reports. Though the data is preliminary, it’s generally smart to stick to lower-mercury varieties like salmon and shrimp. This is especially true if you’ve got other skin cancer risk factors, says study author Eunyoung Cho at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University. (Related: Should Pescatarians Be Especially Concerned About Mercury Poisoning?)

Track your exposure.

If seeing is believing, experts hope new devices that show you just how much UV exposure you’re getting and how it’s affecting your skin will lead to better behavior and sun protection habits.

“Ideally, UV trackers will do for sun awareness what the Fitbit did for exercise, opening people’s eyes to how much they actually get and motivating them to do better,” says Shape Brain Trust member Elizabeth K. Hale, M.D., a dermatologist and a clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU Langone Medical Center.

La Roche-Posay My Skin Track UV (Buy It, $60, laroche-posay.us) is a mini sensor that clips to your clothing or purse. It measures the amount of UV you’re getting and feeds that info to an app, which then alerts you when you’re reaching unsafe levels of exposure. “It makes you realize that little things, like lowering your office shade, can have a real impact on your daily exposure level,” says Dr. Hale.

Another new device, Neutrogena’s Skin360 scanner (Buy It, $60, neutrogena.com), takes high-resolution images of your complexion, sends them to the brand’s 360 app, then offers a detailed skin analysis, advice on how to improve your skin, and progress reports via the scanner. “It’s not a substitute for an evaluation by a board-certified dermatologist, but if it makes you more aware of the damage you’re incurring, it may make you more mindful of the sun,” Dr. Hale says. (Related: How Often Should You Really Get a Skin Exam?)

Stay safe behind the wheel.

For all the sun precautions that outdoorsy women take, you don’t usually think about them as you drive, but you should. Research published in JAMA Ophthalmology shows that while the average percentage of front-windshield UVA blockage is 96 percent, side windows block far less.

This may be why over half of all skin cancers in the U.S. occur on the left, or driver’s, side of the body, according to a 2018 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. For melanomas that have not spread from their original tumor site, that spikes to 74 percent appearing on the left side of the body.

“I also see a lot of squamous cell carcinomas on the left side of the face and the left arm,” says Dr. Hale. “Squamous cell is the second most common skin cancer and the one most correlated to chronic sun exposure. While it’s not as serious as melanoma, it can metastasize if left untreated.” Swipe sunscreen on your hands and exposed arms before you hit the road for sun protection while you drive. For your face, neck, and ears, dust on a powder sunscreen like Supergoop 100% Mineral Invincible Setting Powder (Buy It, $30, dermstore.com). It layers over makeup easily.

Fine-tune your application strategy.

If you’re using a sunscreen spray, keep the nozzle less than an inch from your skin—you should see liquid dripping—and then rub it in. With a stick sunscreen, pass over each area four times to get enough protection, says Dr. Friedman. And don’t forget the skin around your eyes, which studies show is one of the most neglected spots, as well as your lips. (Related: The Best Powder Sunscreens for Grease-Free Application)

Beat the blues.

You try to stay out of the sun from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., right? Well, there’s another type of light you may want to dodge—only this one surrounds you day and night, outdoors and indoors. Blue light (aka high-energy visible light, or HEV) emits from the screens on smartphones, tablets, computers, and LED TVs, as well as from fluorescent and LED lighting.

“Blue light rays are longer than UVA and UVB rays, so they’re potentially going even deeper into the skin,” Dr. Hale says. “But we don’t know yet whether they can contribute to skin cancers.” (Consider grabbing a pair of blue-light blocking glasses too.)

Early research indicates that HEV light can make melasma—patches of darker skin on the face—worse. “If you’re prone to melasma or uneven pigmentation, use sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” says Dr. Gohara. “These physical sunscreens block some blue light from penetrating skin, as well as UV.” That’s a worthwhile bonus.

Repair the cells.

If you’re starting to see signs like dark or red splotches or flaky areas with irregular borders, or if you’ve had a skin pre-cancer like actinic keratosis, Dr. Friedman recommends an in-office treatment like photodynamic therapy, in which a light-sensitive cream is applied and then activated with a blue light that destroys precancerous or cancerous cells, or prescription creams and gels that stimulate your immune system and help destroy damaged cells. For people with a history of sunburn, Dr. Moy also recommends DNA-repair creams, which contain enzymes that help undo sun damage. We like Neova DNA Total Repair (Buy It, $89, dermstore.com) and RMD DNA Intensive Renewal (Buy It, $130, dermstore.com).

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