It was one of the more surprising findings to hit the news in recent years: According to a 2011 study, frequent sunscreen wearers are 23 percent more likely to burn than those who use it rarely. It's enough to make you want to toss out your sunscreen. But not so fast. The problem is not necessarily with sunscreens themselves but rather with how they're labeled and how we're using them -- or misusing them. This month, the Food and Drug Administration's new rules for sunscreen, designed to clear up the confusion, will take effect.
The biggest changes deal with labeling. In the past, it was difficult to determine whether a product blocked both kinds of cancer-causing rays -- UVB (the type that burn) and UVA (which penetrate more deeply and cause wrinkles) -- because SPF numbers reflected only UVB protection. Now if a product isn't "broad spectrum" (protecting against both types), it will carry a warning label. Additionally, the word "waterproof" has been replaced by "water resistant (40 minutes)" or "water resistant (80 minutes)," making it obvious how often you need to reapply.
And adequate application is key. While a shot glass-full every two hours is recommended, most of us slather on only about a third of that, cutting the effectiveness of a lotion with SPF 30 down to SPF 10. That can lead to a false sense of security and, as the aforementioned study made clear, a sunburn. But even when it is used correctly, sunscreen isn't a fail-safe method for warding off skin cancer.
Here are a few other ways to safeguard your skin.
1. Wear the Right Shades
The eyelid is one of the most common sites for non-melanoma skin cancers, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. The good news: One study showed that even inexpensive sunglasses are effective at blocking UV rays. To play it safe, read the labels and buy sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation. Be sure to wear them all day: Light hits eyelids most directly in the morning and the late afternoon.
2. Be on Window Watch
A study from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology reported that people with skin cancer were more likely to have it on the left side of their bodies. The hypothesis? That UVA exposure from side car windows might be the cause. Made from non-laminated clear glass, they block most UVB rays but less than half the UVA rays. Window films from companies such as Solar Gard or 3M can offer added UVA protection (as can wearing long sleeves and adequate sunscreen in the car).
3. Examine Your Pill Box
Some medications -- including antibiotics, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (such as ibuprofen), certain oral contraceptives, diuretics, and retinoids -- make skin more vulnerable to UV radiation. Check labels on medications for warnings about photosensitivity.
4. Eat Like an Italian
A study in the British Journal of Dermatology found that consuming as little as 1 1/3 tablespoons of tomato paste a day reduced sunburn risk by about 33 percent. "Tomatoes contain a high amount of the antioxidant lycopene, which mitigates the effects of the sun's rays on skin and helps reduce skin-cell damage," says Jessica Wu, an L.A.-based dermatologist and author of "Feed Your Face."
5. Sunproof Your Laundry
All clothing screens out the sun to some degree, but darker materials keep you safer than lighter ones because they absorb more UV rays. You can up the UV-blocking capabilities of any washable garment by using a laundry aid, such as SunGuard, which boosts a clothing item's sun protection by up to 600 percent.
6. Sip a Cup of Joe
Drinking a cup of coffee (or two cups of tea) per day reduces the risk of non-melanoma skin cancer by about 5 percent. Caffeine may signal precancerous cells to self-destruct, says Allan Conney, director of the Laboratory for Cancer Research at Rutgers University.
7. Know Your Risk
"Having skin cancer once increases the chance of getting it a second time," says Jean Tang, assistant professor of dermatology at Stanford School of Medicine. In fact, about 33 percent of people who get basal cell carcinoma, the most common skin cancer in the United States, will develop it again, usually within three years. Fair-skinned people and redheads are also at an increased risk: Those with light skin have fewer cells that produce UVblocking skin pigments, while redheads have a variety of pigment that's not as effective at keeping out rays. And if one of your parents has had skin cancer, your chance of developing it is elevated two- to three-fold. Those at higher risk should ask their doctors about getting more frequent skin-cancer screenings.