When it comes to protecting your skin from the sun’s UV rays, starting young is definitely best.
But if sun safety wasn’t on your radar until you were older, don’t despair. Any steps you take now will prevent new damage and reduce your risk of skin cancer.
“We used to say 50% of skin damage happened by your 20’s. Now it’s more like 25%,” says Susan Chon, M.D., professor in MD Anderson’s department of Dermatology. “That’s because people continue to be active and outdoors more throughout their life.”
Whatever age you start a sun protection routine, you are giving your skin a chance to repair itself and decreasing the cumulative UV damage to your skin.
“People say sun safety won’t make a difference now that they’re older but that’s not true,” says Chon. “I’ve had people come in with obvious sun damage, and when they change their skin care routine they notice improvement. They may have less precancerous growths and skin changes.”
Even if you have mild to moderate sun damage, protecting your skin can result in fewer visits to the doctor for minor procedures like freezing off or taking biopsies of suspicious spots, Chon says.
How to protect your skin
The most important thing to do at any age to protect your skin is to seek shade between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you do go out in the sun, wear UV protective clothing and a wide-brimmed hat.
You also should use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 every day, as well as SPF 30 lip balm. Stay away from tanning beds and use sunglasses to protect your eyes.
And talk with a dermatologist about your skin and your skin type.
“If you have any suspicious spots or an increased number of moles, you may want to see a dermatologist to get a baseline check-up to assess your risk for skin cancer. It’s the best way to get educated about your own skin and your own risk,” says Chon.
Your lifestyle also impacts your risk. If you have a history of sunburns or have used tanning beds, your risk for skin cancer is higher. Your job can make a difference as well.
“Some people are in jobs that require them to be outside. They need to know more and have a different routine,” says Chon.
Start your kids young
Sun damage adds up over time, so the earlier you start your kids with a good skin protection routine, the better.
“Look at the top of your arm versus the insides of your arm. The skin is the same age but looks completely different because the top gets more UV exposure,” says Chon. “People who practice sun protection in their earlier years can look years or even a decade younger.”
If you can help your kids avoid sunburn, you also reduce their risk of skin cancer. One or more blistering sunburns as a child can double the lifetime risk of the most serious skin cancer, melanoma.
Modeling good sun safety is one of the best ways to teach your children to protect themselves throughout their life.
“If you can adopt the best skin protection yourself, you and your children will benefit. Sun protection is a routine that becomes a regular habit once it is established. Kids remember and will model the example you set.” says Chon.