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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  • Claire

    If I’m going to a humid place where there are lots of mosquitoes, should I apply sunscreen before or after I apply my bug spray? And would sunscreen attract mosquitoes? (I tend to be their meal of choice.)

    • Kate Barnett

      totally can relate — if there’s a mosquito out, it finds me. put on sunscreen first, give it 20 minutes or so to set on your skin, then go for the bug spray. i usually end up wearing long sleeves/pants when it’s bad around dusk. good luck!

      • Claire

        Very helpful–thank you! If I reapply my sunscreen, does that mean I should also reapply bug spray to continue the overall effectiveness?

        • Kate Barnett

          The CDC says to reapply bug spray if you start to get bitten again, but also to check the label on the product. If the bug spray has deet in it, that’s supposed to be fairly long lasting, but if the reapplication of sunscreen results in more bites, reapply the bug spray as well.

    • Olivia

      The Cancer Council Sunscreen with insect repellent is what I use all the time. I get attacked something wicked by mosquitoes. This sunscreen is even better than bug spray for me, it seems to stay on a lot longer.

      • chatnoir

        Thx for the tip! I’m willing to try anything to keep from being munched on!

  • monkeyshines
  • wrinklephobe

    Does sunscreen prevent wrinkles??

    • Kate Barnett

      It definitely helps by blocking some the ultraviolet radiation that breaks the elastic fibers in our skin, which causes wrinkles. It’s even better to wear a hat, as well.

  • nicolecontrol

    What’s the product that’s being taken off the market? Ineedtoknowplease!

    • Kate Barnett

      ha. just know that it didn’t have any of the ingredients we’re supposed to look for — antihelios, zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or parasol 1789.

  • Lisa Thomson

    Great article! Thank you. I didn’t realize that sunscreen does not prevent cancer…yikes. I love the sun and the beach so will be spending more than the times recommended here, in the sun. However, the hat is a must for me. Also, I’ll invest in an umbrella and try the sunscreen the Doctor recommends.

  • The Dandy Diaries

    Is it more beneficial to wear a sun screen with a higher SPF? This was very informative, thanks Dr. Nancy & Co.

    I wrote a piece on a similar topic; how to reduce Summer Sweats:

    • Kate Barnett

      Yes, higher SPFs block a greater percent of uv rays. When my mom starts a vacation she’ll use SPF 70, and then gradually go down to SPF 50 once her skin is less likely to burn. She does this if she’s going for a walk or to the farmer’s market, she doesn’t use this as a way to build a tan, simply a way to protect her from incidental sun while being outside (usually with a hat on). The other important thing is to use enough sunscreen — one ounce, or two tablespoons, is about the right amount an adults full body.

      • The Dandy Diaries

        Thanks for taking the time to answer the questions on here, Kate.

        Your post has led me to be more mindful this summer. Reading the distinction of how sun screen prevents sunburns and not skin cancer is terrifyingly eye opening, especially as I think back to all the times I thought I was doing enough with my “sun sense strategy”

        • Kate Barnett

          My pleasure! And thank you so much for say that. It’s been eye-opening for me, as well, and I’ll definitely be upgrading my sun habits this summer.

      • N G

        If I remember correctly, I thought anything higher than SPF 30 becomes arbitrary; just because your wearing an SPF of 50 or 70 doesn’t necessarily mean your being even more protected. Correct me if I’m wrong.

        • Kate Barnett

          Thanks for mentioning this! SPF is actually a formula and directly proportional (I included the formula at the bottom if you’re interested, although it’s calculated in a lab, with controlled conditions. and everyone’s skin is different). So, the concern about SPFs over 50 (not 30!!!) is that the rating system is thought to be misleading to consumers, and the increase in protection isn’t that significant above SPF 50. There’s also concern about consumer habits, that people will use higher SPFs to stay in the sun longer, increasing their risk of skin cancer.

          The best plan of action is to follow the notes from the essay above on selecting a quality sunscreen that you’ll use, and to not intentionally lie out and tan. An SPF between 30 and 50 is good for most people. Use at least an ounce to cover the body so you’re getting the level of protection you expect against sunburns (under-applying can turn an SPF 50 to an SPF 10), and if have to be in the sun for extended periods, remember to re-apply, avoid 10am – 4pm sun, and opt for a hat, sunglasses, a light long-sleeve shirt, etc. to create some shade.

          SPF = (time until skin turns reddish with protection) / (time until skin turns reddish without protection). So if you burned in two minutes in midday sun without protection, then with an SPF of 30 it would take you 60 minutes to burn (60/2 = 30).

          • N G

            Thanks so much for clarifying this Kate as well as taking the time to respond. It’s much appreciated.

      • Guest

        Note that the FDA as of last year has changed labeling regulations. Sunscreens with SPF higher than 50 can now only be labeled as “50+ SPF”. Gone are the days of 70 SPF and overestimating our actual protection.

  • Pip

    This is a great post as I have been out in the sun more often than normal lately and it is a good reminder for me to make sure I have my sunscreen on! I need the 3x’s a week 15 minute exposure though to lack of vitamin D in my diet though. I will be more careful as well all need to! Hope you are having a good day! xx Pip

    Easy Outfits by Pip

  • I swear by Somme’s double defense! I never leave my house without it on! It’s great for sensitive skin. Thanks for all the info, Kate’s Mom!

  • Great advice! I do my best to stay covered up in the sun, and wear sunscreen all the time when I’m outside now. Still working on finding a sunscreen that doesn’t make my face break out, but it seems as long as I wash my face after coming inside, it’s not so bad.

    Have a great weekend!

    • Kate Barnett

      i have the same problem, it’s especially tricky to find one on the lower end of the price spectrum. i’ve been pleasantly surprised by double defense, though. it feels a little heavy going on, but the team at Somme suggested washing and drying my hands, then rubbing it in again, which for me is the difference between looking dewy and looking oily/shiny. good luck, and let me know if you find a good one!

      • I’ll have to give that one a try, and I’ll definitely let you guys know if I find a good one!

  • s

    so important to know this for the summer! I didn’t know that about sunscreen… great post


  • Me Gusta o No Me Gusta

    OMG That´s really usefull info.

    I in fact hate sun bating.I can not stand the heat of the summer sun (specially) over my skin for more than 5 to 10 minutes.

    And If I´m going to be out on summer I use – minimum – sun blocker.

  • Chic Trends

    Incredibly useful information. We’ve been very fond of the Neutrogena 50 SPF because it doesn’t cause breakouts! But even so, we would still like to get some color on our skin. Do you have any recommendations on self-tanners that you’ve used and actually work? We find that most tanning lotions are orange, stain our hands, and the color is gone very quickly.

    Looking forward to your suggestions!

    • Kate Barnett

      I’m pretty intimidated by the sunless tanner application process. The gradual tanners, like Jergens, are a bit more fool proof and can build a nice glow. And Clarins makes a product for the face that tricks me into complimenting my friend every time she uses it. I think a lot depends on your skin tone, though. My sister tans golden and can fake a tan pretty well, but I’m olive toned and tan more brown. Even when I’ve done airbrush tanning for events it still doesn’t look quite right. So for the most part I stick to bronzers. NARS in Laguna is an MR favorite, and Guerlain’s terracotta line is great. I always play with their bronzing powder mist spray in sephora, though i haven’t committed to buying it yet.

      Which ones have worked the best for you?

      • Chic Trends

        We’re pretty pale so that means burning instead of tanning unfortunately. We’ve tried Jergens but it looks so orange! Still have yet to find that perfect lotion but we heard Rodial makes a good one. As for bronzers, a personal favorite is Chanel’s Terre Epice.

        Anyway, thanks so much for the recommendations! Going to try out Clarins!

  • Selena Aponte

    La Roche Posay is my favorite. Very light, fragrance-free and relatively inexpensive.

  • I’ve read so many articles about this lately (which is a good thing), but it’s also kinda scary. I’m also a big fan of the La roche products.

  • Rose

    As a nurse and avid reader of your wonderful blog, I am so happy for this post! The eyes are important to protect and not something the public often thinks of when they hear melanoma/skin cancer so I’m happy you included them. An excuse to buy wondy sunnies to protect our peepers! Be well, happy Friday xx

  • chatNoir

    Thanks muchly to Katie & Team MR for this important PSA !

    Fashion is more than just the clothes: it’s about good health.

    An excellent, timely msg to kick off Summer ’13!

  • Anna Louise

    Good article. Some comments. It is my understanding that the FDA is phasing in some changes over the next two years: 1. Ban on sprays and powders, due to efficacy and inhalation issues; 2. Elimination of all claims to any SPF higher than 50 (55?); 3. Introduction of requirement for all sunscreens to provide broad spectrum coverage; 4. Requirement to ensure the level of protection from A rays is at least half as good as the SPF factor claimed for B; 5. Ban on claims “sun block” as opposed to “sun screen” and “waterproof” (as opposed to “water resistant.” Also, would note that the two tablespoon recommendation seems rather conservative. I use at least a tablespoon for my face, and I live up north, where the sun don’t shine (as much.)

    • chatnoir

      I recently read an article (nyt?) That included all these points… Thx for reposting info here!

  • Wow this was a very helpful post! I’m consantly having to remind myself to apply sunscreen before I walk out the door. Part of me remembers, and part of me fears the onset of a pimple, as you stated above. Glad to hear there are at least a few that are affordable and less oily. And while reading the other comments, I was really happy to read your replies! Your promptness and thorough answers are very much appreciated, and essentially I think it’s the difference between a good blog and a bad blog. I love that Team MR makes an effort to connect back with their readers, rather than just post a monologue and expect it to become a dialogue without further insight from the writers. Rockin’ it.

  • erica jensen

    I’m headed to Cancun in a couple weeks & I am so fair. You know I’ll be liberal with the sunscreen!

  • Lauren

    Great post, I love this.

  • Jordan Shaner

    I love this post! I coach swim so I’m out in the sun A LOT. And I still get incredibly tan even though I layer on the sunscreen, but I still forget that it’s not good to lay out! So informative!


  • The Fashion Fraction
  • Cassandra Too

    Taking care of our skin and prevent skin cancer is such a big challenge specially at where I live – forever sunny. I hate putting on sunscreen because they always make my skin feel so oily. But I guess for health, I just have to put it.

    Thanks for sharing the info! 😀

    Sending you loads of love ♥♥♥See you over at BACKTOFIVE !

  • ok, I’m going to admit it. I didn’t realize that sunscreen doesn’t prevent skin cancer. That’s pretty freakin scary. I was planning a blog post on my favorite suncreens, Anthelios has been a staple for years. I also like Murad, and for super sun exposure Institut Esthederm. Thanks for sharing this valuable article. Cheers

  • we’ve gotta make like the aussies this summer and slip (on a shirt), slop (on sunscreen), slap (on a hat). and something about shrimp on a barbie.


  • Love the Neutrogena. Wear it every day!

  • Stopped dead after spying the Saint Laurent fedora. *love*

    And I agree..must find shade.. 🙂

  • Kylie

    I am all about sun protection! This is such an informative post, just in time for the summer sun!

  • Sylvie

    Great summary. Clear and vey well written!

  • repeller

    Neutrogena throws crates of free stuff at dermatologists. 6% oxybenzone? Eh, so what? They’re only hormones; go ahead, disrupt them. And what does immunotoxicity mean?

    • Kate Barnett

      I’m glad you brought up the point about hormones. It’s something that I have to keep an eye on both for personal health and because breast cancer is rampant in my family history. According to the research, the estrogenic effects of oxybenzone are serveral hundred times less than what the average person is exposed to in their diet. (i know… average diets vary hugely). For some people, the use of any chemical on their skin is unthinkable, in which case they’ve always opted to stay in the shade, which is the best option from a skin cancer and anti-aging perspective, as well.

      • goddesshuntress

        Oxybenzone is a photo-carcinogen, meaning that it turns into a carcinogen when exposed to light. Retinyl Palmitate is also a photo-carcinogen. It is unfortunate that these two ingredients are becoming prevalent in many sunscreen brands. Neutrogena Ultra Dry Sheer SPF 70, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Face Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid, and Somme Institute Double Defense all contain oxybenzone, unfortunately. Having lost my father to melanoma I avidly avoid these photo-carcinogens in all of my skincare.

  • Anna

    need to buy it for vacation!


  • priscilla

    Good article, thank you.
    I have found the Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch to have a good, inexpensive and non-greasy formula that doesn’t cause breakouts. I apply it in the morning after moisturizing so I don’t forget to use it. I keep another tube in my car and in the drawer in my office so I can touch it up at lunch time and after work.
    Don’t forget your neck and chest on a regular, non-beach day, either!

    • Kate Barnett

      good reminder! and the tips of your ears, too. especially for women or men with short hair.

  • Lucy

    Hi, just wondering if anyone knows of a sun cream available in the UK (and as inexpensive as possible) that won’t leave your white clothes with murky yellow stains all over them? This has happened to me the last couple of summers and i’m fed up of my clothes getting ruined! Thanks 🙂 x

  • Cas

    Any advice for those of us who have an allergy to sunscreen? A few years ago I discovered that sunscreens and products with SPF (even chapstick) make my face brake out in hives that burn and don’t go away for days. Luckily this doesn’t happen all over my body so I can still wear some sunscreen, but I’m still searching for some effective face protection!

    • Kate Barnett

      hey cas – i’m so sorry to hear that! I’d check in with your dermatologist and ask about topical cortisone cream/gel to help with the hives in the future; it can be a huge relief.

      While you may be allergic to the ingredients in the sunscreens, it’s more likely a photoallergic reaction from a combination of the ingredients and the sun. (unfortunately some of the greatest photoallergens are sunscreens.) some people have reported better results with sunscreens that use only titanium dioxide or zinc oxide without any of the -benzones. I know that Skinceuticals makes one, and there are also powder sunscreens by Bare Minerals, Peter Thomas Roth, and Colorscience that use only titanium dioxide. The thing is, the -oxides can be photoallergens, too, so if you decide to try them, do a small test patch and see how your skin reacts after exposure to sun. Good luck!

    • Catherine Bohner

      When I was a kid I had a similar reaction to a sunscreen, so I refused to wear it for the longest time. Turns out it was just that one brand (I think it was Neutrogena actually). I’m a big Banana Boat fan.

  • Restless Blonde

    Sunscreens are the most important thing in skincare ever! I always remember to put some on – no matter if it’s in a cream or a powder. I also wear sunglasses. But, as you say, sometimes we may let ourselves walk in a pure sun – without SPF – so vitamine D is absorbed…

    Nice post!

  • NeenaJ

    Just a note about the clothing: UV rays can penetrate clothing. So, don’t think you can don a long sleeved t-shirt and be protected. The average white t-shirt (dry) only has about an SPF of 7. You can buy special SPF-treated clothing at outdoor shops like REI or treat your own with SunGuard (a wash-in by the Rit dye folks). My friend has had melanoma and she slathers on the SPF and wears treated clothing when she’s outside for the day for extra protection.

  • kate sheehan

    Great article and love that you point out that sunscreen does not prevent skin cancer, and the common sense rules around avoiding baking in the sun (ugh, so hard!). I share the concerns of a couple of other commenters about toxic chemicals in sunscreen. Given that we slather sunscreen and other products all over our largest organ everyday, and it absorbs up to 60% of that very quickly, I’d rather choose skin care products that don’t include hormone disruptors to the extent possible. With that in mind, I wanted to share an excellent resource that will help you find safer options, EWG’s annual guide to sunscreen: (OH – and nice to see that you’re from the Cape!)

  • goddesshuntress

    Neutrogena Ultra Dry Sheer SPF 70, La Roche-Posay Anthelios 60 Face Ultra Light Sunscreen Fluid, and Somme Institute Double Defense all contain oxybenzone, unfortunately. Oxybenzone is a photo-carcinogen, meaning that it turns into a carcinogen when exposed to light. Retinyl Palmitate is also a photo-carcinogen. It is unfortunate that these two ingredients are becoming prevalent in many sunscreen brands. Having lost my father to melanoma I avidly avoid these photo-carcinogens in all of my skincare.

  • Loved this article. I think that most people have been freaking out and have become too scared of sunlight when vitamin D is actually essential, and it is only produced by the body when it is exposed to the sun. However, I agree that moderation is key and that appropriate protection is required especially on delicate areas of the body. I like Coola and Badger sunscreens a lot.


  • Catherine Bohner

    I don’t get all the Neutrogena love. I had some of their sheer spray and it seemed pretty caustic–burning, stinging, bad-smelling, oily… I can’t say I’ve ever been impressed by any of their products, just suckered by the “dermatologist recommended” branding.

    Banana Boat is the best, especially their faces stuff. I have the elementary school science project data to back it up!