Sun Sense

Notes from a doc on safe sun exposure. Bring on the wide-brimmed fedoras.


It’s Friday, it’s almost June, and it’s the last day of Skin Cancer Awareness month, so we’ve done a bit of sleuthing on the best practices for summer sun exposure. Fortunately, we have an expert on the (extended) Team Man Repeller: Kate’s mom, Dr. Nancy K. Barnett. Kate sat down with her mom this week to get the skinny on skincare. Here’s what she learned:

After spending an hour interviewing my mom last night, I was pretty certain that we’re all going to get skin cancer, likely because I’m a hypochondriac with a tendency toward extremes. That was reflected in my first draft of today’s essay, which I sent to my mom, who suggested that perhaps my eagerness to sum things up led to an oversimplification of our chat, though the critical takeaway was accurate. Sunscreen does not prevent skin cancer, it prevents sunburns. That fact stunned me.

That’s not to say you should toss your Banana Boat, it’s more that sunscreen is a good and important part of what should be a larger sun sense strategy. And that strategy is crucial, because the incidences of skin cancer continue to rise, and the fastest growing age group for the most severe and difficult to treat form of skin cancer – melanoma – is women aged 15 to 39. Which is why we’re sending you off this weekend with top tips for sun exposure, as well as some of our favorite summer accessories to make following doctors’ orders a bit easier.

1. Some sun is exposure is okay. It provides Vitamin D, which helps our bodies process calcium efficiently, and can help clear a host of skin ailments like acne, psoriasis and eczema.

1b. Healthy sun exposure, however, is 10-15 minutes of unprotected sun, three times a week, not during peak hours, and probably with a hat if you want to avoid wrinkles. After that you’re just increasing your risk of skin cancer.

1c. That means laying out and intentionally tanning is never safe, even if you’re not getting burned. Which is a point I asked my mom to repeat at least three times in the hopes of having misunderstood her. The increase in melanoma in women 15 to 39 might in fact be the result of repeated tanning – outdoors or in booths – not sunburns.

2. So don’t use sunscreen as a way to extend your time outside, but definitely use sunscreen if you’re going to be outside anyway. Sunscreen can protect you from sunburns and decrease your risk for some forms of skin cancer. (Though not the most common type, basal cell carcinomas.)

2b. Look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen with UVA and UVB protection, an SPF higher than 15, and ingredients that include one of the following: antihelios, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or parasol 1789. It doesn’t need to be expensive to be effective.

3. The best option is to also seek shade. Wear a hat, bring a long sleeve shirt, and don’t forget the sunglasses – sun exposure can lead to cataracts.

4. See a doctor if you notice a consistent scaly, pink patch or a sore that doesn’t heal, these could be pre-cancerous or cancerous cells.

4b. Also keep an eye on moles, and see a doctor if you notice any of the ABCDEs of melanoma: Asymmetry, Border irregularity, Color change, Diameter enlargement and Evolution (meaning any change).

So, what products do we use? Dr. Barnett is a huge fan of Neutrogena’s Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch for its texture, and also uses La Roche-Posay’s Anthelios Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid and CosMedix Reflect Natural Sunscreen Mist. Leandra’s also a fan of Anthelios, as well as Lancaster, which smells divine. And I just found out that my absolute favorite dry spray sunscreen is being taken off the market, because it apparently doesn’t work. Fortunately, I recently switched to Somme Institute’s Double Defense, which I was afraid would break me out like every other sun lotion, but in fact works quite well for my acne-prone skin (actually, their whole line’s been great for that).  And it contains Parasol 1789, which according to my mom is an oldie but goodie for ultra-violet ray protection.

And for part two of your sun strategy – seeking shade – Leandra selected some choice caps and blinkers in the slideshow above.


Enjoy a safe and very lightly sun-kissed summer.

Formerly an Associate Professor of Dermatology at Johns Hopkins University, Doctor Nancy K. Barnett now practices at Dermatology of Cape Cod in Falmouth, MA. The above picture shows Kate and Nancy together, before she was Dr. Nancy, and knew better than to sit at the beach without a wide-brimmed hat, at the very least. 

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