Advice from the trenches: A crack in the shield


Welcome to Advice From the Trenches, a monthly feature on NRI NOW.

In this month’s column, writer Cathren Housley answers questions about sunscreen, skin cancer, and how to best protect yourself. 

Do you have a question for the column? Send your thoughts, ideas and woes to

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Dear C;

For as long as I can remember, my mom always made sure my brother and I used sunscreen before we went out to play. She used it religiously herself and it was always in her tote bag when we went to the beach.

Last week, she was diagnosed with skin cancer. It was a total shock! She felt betrayed –  she had faithfully used a product that promised to protect her, and now she had melanoma. She can’t understand it and neither can I. I’m wondering if you do?

– Tammy Tan

C says:

I’m sorry to hear about your mom, Tammy. But she isn’t alone. According to to CDC, skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. and the numbers keep rising.

The primary avoidable cause is sun exposure and tanning beds, so your mom wasn’t wrong about the importance of protecting herself. But a little learning can be a dangerous thing – not every sunscreen offers the same type of protection, and even the right ones won’t help if you don’t apply them exactly as directed.

It’s common knowledge that damage from the sun is caused by UV rays, but many people don’t realize there are two different types — UVA and UVB. This is where the protective power of a sunscreen can be misleading- conventional sun screens will give some protection against sunburn because it’s caused by UVB rays. Unfortunately, by themselves they block very few of the UVA rays which can lead to melanoma and also cause the invisible damage that leads to premature aging. Broad spectrum sunscreens with both UVA and UVB blockers offer the best protection.

In the ’60s and ’70s suntan lotion protection was practically a joke, with an SPF of 2. The first SPF 15 came out in 1986 and the FDA approved UVA blockers in1988. So this may come as a shock –  the rate of new melanoma cases among American adults has more than tripled since the 1970s. 

How is that possible? Doesn’t it make sense that the widespread use of sunscreen would have slowed the rate, if nothing else?

It could have. If properly used, broad spectrum sunscreen can provide valuable protection against certain types of cancer…but it is surprising how few people use it as directed. 

The biggest problem with sunscreen is that when people use it, they spend even more time out in the sun. Research has shown that the higher the SPF, the safer people feel exposing themselves to dangerous amounts of radiation. But even an SPF of 100 doesn’t provide a magic shield. Sun screen is prone to rub off or wash off of our sweaty summer skin, and even water resistant sunblock needs to be applied repeatedly at the beach in order to work. 

Now, here’s the strangest twist of all – in some countries, outdoor workers report lower rates of melanoma than indoor workers. Skin cancer rates are, on average, higher in northern cities with less year-round UV intensity than in cities with tropical sun. How can that be? It is because of an odd paradox: studies have found that Vitamin D from controlled, safe sun exposure actually helps prevent skin cancer. Ironically, UVB sunscreens block the Vitamin D producing rays, but allow the cancer causing rays right through. 

Here’s what I’d recommend as your best line of defense:

• Don’t use sunscreen as an excuse to prolong your time in the sun.
• Pick a sunscreen with natural ingredients and UVA protection and use as directed.
• Cover up! Think big hats, diaphanous white clothing and big beach umbrellas.
• Say no tanning beds.
• Avoid sunburn yourself and protect young kids. Early life sunburns can emerge as skin cancer or premature aging many years in the future.
• Get a healthy dose of vitamin D. The safe exposure time is 10 minutes a day for very fair skinned people, and 20 minutes a day for people with darkest skin. 

Last but not least, get professional screening every year. A dermatologist can spot early skin cancers long before you can. 

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As originally published in Motif Magazine.

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