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10 Beautiful Ways to Defy Skin Cancer

Sun protection isn't just for summer anymore

spinner image Nicole Kidman, Daisy Fuentes, Lucy Liu, Angela Bassett, Oprah Winfrey, Viola Davis
Getty Images; Michael Tullberg/Getty Images; Getty Images; Roy Rochlin/Getty Images for Tribeca Film Festival; Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images; Getty Images

Think of your skin as permanent wrapping paper for your looks. By 50 what started out as a smooth package can get pretty decorative — with creasing and colorful add-ons — thanks to prior years of sun exposure. Let's be realistic: We've all had plenty of unprotected decades. Basal and squamous cell skin cancer are a scary reality for many of us; melanoma is even more terrifying. I asked dermatologist Dennis Gross, a board member of the Skin Cancer Foundation, to add his professional insight to my own beauty editor suggestions. Here are 10 ways to play safe in the sun:

1. Every skin tone light to dark requires daily sun protection.

There's no such thing as getting a “base tan to look healthy” or “I have darker skin so that's natural protection.” Whether your skin is pale like Nicole Kidman, darker like Viola Davis or somewhere in-between, you can't afford to skip sunscreen. The more pigment — known as melanin — in your skin, the richer, deeper your complexion, but it's not a barrier to UV rays. “Women of all complexions, all races, are vulnerable to skin cancer,” says Gross. And we're all also susceptible to sunburns, wrinkles, saggy skin and spotty discolorations. That means it is crucial to use products with clearly stated broad spectrum protection on the label to protect against UVB (burning rays) and UVA (aging) rays.

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2. You can start improving your skin health today.

"We need to raise the level of awareness for those women 50-plus who think the damage is done,” says Gross. “It's important to prevent new cancers or new precancerous lesions from a health perspective.” Of course, there are optional dermatological procedures such as lasers to improve brown spots, wrinkles and saggy skin as a result of long-term sun exposure, but the DIY part — sunscreen — is not negotiable. “The FDA is currently considering a new cap of 60+ on high SPF (sun protection factor) numbers, but make a daily SPF 30+ part of your routine for all exposed skin, apply generously, thoroughly and reapply as needed,” he adds.

3. Glass is no barrier to UVA rays.

Sunscreen is not just for days at the beach or pool. UVA rays (those aging and skin-destroying ones) penetrate glass, so driving, sitting or working in front of a window leaves you vulnerable. In fact, according to a 2018 study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, the left side of drivers’ faces often show more visible signs of aging and skin cancer since that's the driver's window side.

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4. Layer sunscreen and makeup with SPF for extra protection.

Some women prefer to apply a separate broad-spectrum SPF sunscreen over their serum and moisturizer and under makeup. Others skip straight to a moisturizer with built-in broad-spectrum SPF or a moisturizing tinted CC cream with an SPF. But note: Adding a foundation with SPF 22 to an SPF 30 moisturizer or sunscreen does not add up to SPF 52, but it does provide another barrier layer. Try carrying a portable brush-on SPF 30+ powder for protective touchups during the day and look for tinted lip balms with an SPF to wear solo and under or over lipstick.

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5. Consider trading your chemical sunscreen for a physical block.

In February 2019, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a sunscreen overhaul proposal that may change your thinking. Of all the sunscreen ingredients currently on shelves the FDA declared only two — titanium oxide and zinc oxide, found in mineral-based physical sunscreens — as safe with continued testing of the twelve other active ingredients in chemical sunscreens. Physical sunblocks contain the natural minerals titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide that work like a barrier shield to deflect UV rays. “I'm a fan of physical blocks with titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide,” says Gross. “They're good for all but especially comfortable for women with sensitive skin, rosacea or eczema. The new formulas are sheer, feel and look invisible not chalky or white on all skin tones and are very compatible with makeup."

6. Be tougher about how and where you apply that SPF.

A quick once-over is not enough. “I'm seeing a lot of skin cancers around the hairline in women 50-plus,” says Gross. “My guess is that when applying sunscreen, they're paying more attention to the center of the face and neglecting the borders. This is likely due to concern of messing their hair.” Be sure to include other neglected spots like your ears, neck, chest, forearms and hands and ankles in cropped pants — all exposed skin requires protection. And, yes, apply it to the tops of feet and toes in those new sandals, too.

7. Get your vitamin D from food not skin exposure.

Worried about missing out on sunlight's natural vitamin D for your bones? Turns out you do need both sources, but not in a risky way. “A healthy diet and supplements are a better source than unprotected skin,” says Gross. Don't kid yourself: You're opening a whole can of beauty worms by sitting even 10 or 15 minutes without sunscreen. Fatty fish like salmon and mackerel are loaded with vitamin D and it's also found in egg yolks, cheese and fortified milk and orange juice. Check with your doctor for the best solutions especially if you have osteopenia or osteoporosis.

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8. The only safe tan is a self-tan ... worn with sunscreen.

Some women can't break away from the look of a tan, that luminous just-back-from-the-beach glow. Self-tanner has come a long way from its orange-y, streaky, stinky, messy origins. The best ones are gradual tanners that allow you to control the depth of color, disposable pre-saturated towelettes and bronzing drops you mix with your usual moisturizer in the palm of your hand before applying. But even those that state “SPF” on the package require a separate sunscreen. The job of self-tanner is not screening UVA/UVB rays — it's purely a cosmetic. And, of course, you just say no to tanning beds. They're just as dangerous as actual sunbathing and boost your risk of skin cancer in addition to burns and eye injury.

9. Give your skin a break.

"If you do use self-tanner take a no-self-tanner time out,” suggests Gross. “Use this window of natural skin tone to assess any textural changes or discolorations. If you have any issues that last more than a month see your dermatologist.” If you do have any treatments for pre-cancerous lesions or skin cancer, make sure to be extra kind to your skin. “No products other than gentle cleanser and moisturizer on your face — especially in specific spots during healing — which may last seven to 10 days,” adds Gross.

10. Wear protective clothing, sunglasses and a hat in the sun.

Specialized clothing brands and certain items claim a UPF rating — Ultraviolet Protection Factor — the fashion equivalent of SPF. They're most popular and useful in rash guards (swim shirts), swimsuits and outdoorsy athletic wear, but for everyday clothes you don't really need a UPF. Use common sense: The darker and more intense the colors and the more tightly woven the fabric like denim, polyester or rayon, the more UV rays are absorbed. Pale and pastel colors and lighter more loosely woven fabrics like cotton T-shirts and breezy linen ankle pants, feel cooler but offer less protection. When spending time outdoors, the more skin you cover the better, so make midi skirts and boho maxi dresses, wide brimmed hats and big sexy UV filter sunglasses your new best friends this summer.

For more beauty and style tips for women age 50-plus, check out The Woman's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50 by Lois Joy Johnson

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