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7 surprising ways you're getting sun exposure

You know that sun exposure increases your risk of skin cancer (the most common form of cancer in the United States), so you wear sunscreen at the beach and don’t go to the tanning salon. But did you know you may be getting too much sun exposure from other sources?

“People with all skin types are at risk for skin damage and skin cancer from sun exposure, no exceptions,” says Samantha Avoke, M.D., a Piedmont internal medicine physician. “It’s important to protect your skin with protective clothing and sunscreen.”

Dr. Avoke says even incidental sun exposure can add up over time, leading to decreased skin elasticity, premature aging, poor wound healing and skin cancer.

Here are some surprising ways you can get sun exposure.

1. While wearing SPF

Dr. Avoke warns that not all sunscreens are created equal and not everyone applies them correctly to get complete protection. Here’s how to get the most out of your sunscreen:

  • Choose a broad-spectrum formula. This means it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. According to the American Cancer Society, all sunscreens offer some protection against UVB rays (which cause sunburns and contribute to skin cancer), but not all products protect against UVA rays, which lead to skin damage, aging and skin cancer.

  • Select at least SPF 15 and reapply regularly. While higher SPF ratings do offer more sun protection, that doesn’t mean they last longer. In other words, SPF 45 doesn’t last longer than SPF 20. You should reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of the formula. If you wear makeup or want an easy way to reapply throughout the day, opt for a powder sunscreen with a built-in brush.

  • Go for a water-resistant formula when sweating or swimming. Keep in mind that water-resistant doesn’t mean waterproof: You’ll still need to reapply every two hours or after toweling off.

  • Don’t forget commonly missed spots. Apply an SPF product to the scalp, lips, ears, hands, feet and sides of your face.

2. Sitting in the shade

If you’re going to spend time outside, it’s best to seek as much shade as possible. But just because you’re in the shade doesn’t mean you have a free pass to skip applying—and reapplying—sunscreen. The sun’s rays can not only filter through many umbrella fabrics, but they can also reflect off the ground beneath you.

Anytime you’re outside, wear SPF and reapply every two hours or after sweating or swimming.

3. Riding in the car

According to a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, more than half of skin cancers occur on the left side of the body. This is likely because we’re exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation while driving.

To reduce your sun exposure in the car:

  • Have window film installed on your windows. Choose one that screens out both UVA and UVB radiation.

  • Wear sun-protective clothing. Many stores now offer Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing, which helps block the sun’s rays. If you’re going on an extended road trip, consider wearing long sleeves with UPF.

  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before you get in the car. Keep a bottle with you in the car and reapply every two hours.

4. Spending time indoors

If you sit near a window, you’re likely getting UV exposure. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, while window glass generally blocks most UVB rays that cause sunburn, more than 50% of UVA rays can still get through.

5. On rainy or cloudy days

UVA rays can still penetrate the clouds on foggy, rainy or overcast days, so don’t skip your SPF.

6. At the nail salon

If you get gel manicures that require a light to cure them, you’re getting potentially harmful UV exposure. Apply sunscreen to your hands before your visit and after washing your hands. If you get a traditional manicure, let the polish airdry or ask for a fan instead.

7. While running errands

Always apply sunscreen any time you’ll be outside, even if it’s just for a few minutes at a time. Small amounts of sun exposure add up over time.

You can still get sun damage without a sunburn

It’s possible to experience sun damage even if you don’t get a sunburn.

“Sunburn is usually a more extreme form of sun damage,” says Dr. Avoke. “Many people experience sun damage to the skin fibers called elastin. This disrupts skin cell division, which isn’t visible to the naked eye. Skin damage may not be apparent when you’re young, but it definitely shows as you age.”

If you have questions about your skin health or would like a skin cancer screening, talk to your primary care provider or dermatologist.

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