Are you using sunscreen correctly?

Memorial Day weekend is on the horizon, and the unofficial start of summer brings promises of water, sun, splashing, grilled food and great fun with friends and family. 

And you have an important question swimming around in your head: Am I using sunscreen correctly?  

OK, maybe not, but it’s a good topic to address as the days are heating up and people are spending more time outdoors. 

I have been pretty good about using sunscreen as I get older. Even though I’m fair-skinned and was at risk for skin cancer, I have to admit that wanting to slow down aging was my main motivation for this. 

Many of you might remember childhoods of yore when sunscreen wasn’t stressed like it is today. I definitely had my fair share of sunburns. And in late 2022, it caught up with me. I was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma on my calf. 

If I didn’t have a health reporting background and had not been writing about skin cancer and Lyme disease as part of my public information officer job at Monongalia County Health Department, I might not have detected the spot on my leg as quickly. 

In October 2022, I noticed what I thought might be a spider bite or bulls-eye pattern from a tick bite on my calf. I happened to have a dermatologist appointment a week later and remembered to show it to her. I was hoping she would say it was nothing but instead, she told me if it wasn’t gone by Thanksgiving, she would biopsy it. 

It wasn’t and she did, and it turned out to be not the most dangerous type of skin cancer, melanoma. But it also wasn’t the one of least concern, basal cell carcinoma. 

To learn more about the different types, the American Academy of Dermatology provides information at this link: aad.org/public/diseases/skin-cancer/types/common. 

At first I had a simple procedure that burned the cancer off. Unfortunately, a small part of it came back and I had to have surgery on my calf, one of the trickier areas of the body to heal. That procedure took place on May 1 last year, halfway through spring, and it really made my summer a bit of a bummer to not be as active as I wanted to be. 

Now I really take sunscreen seriously because I don’t want it to come back. And although it doesn’t happen as frequently as it does with melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma can appear internally. It makes me feel good about my twice-a-year appointments at MCHD Dentistry, where oral cancer screenings are performed thoroughly and as a matter of routine. 

I also get body checks by the dermatologist twice a year.  

But even if you do use sunscreen, are you using it as effectively as possible? Here are some tips from a blog posted on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (cdc.gov) website. 

  • Use a lot. “Studies have shown that consumers use much less sunscreen than is needed to effectively protect, so use more than you think you need!”  
  • When it comes to selecting sunscreen, coconut oil is NOT a good ingredient. But a mineral such as zinc is and will help keep the lotion on your body longer. 
  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before you go outside and reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you are sweating, in water, etc. 
  • And finally, take other precautions. “Sunscreen isn’t an all-protective force field. It is intended to be combined with other sun-safety approaches, like covering up with clothing, staying in the shade, wearing a hat and scheduling activities to avoid times of day when the sun is most intense.”  

Take it from me: Any hassle from using sunscreen is better than getting a painful sunburn and, potentially, skin cancer down the road. So slather it on before (and maybe during) your outdoor activities. 

Email Mary Wade Burnside at [email protected]