The Backstory

Take cover

You’re never too young to start protecting your skin

Mornings can be hectic for Kristin Nord as she helps her three young children get ready for the day. But despite the scramble to make sure their faces are washed and teeth are brushed, she always makes time for one more step: applying sunscreen.

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Nord, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at Stanford, knows that limiting exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet radiation will decrease her children’s chances of developing skin cancer and other skin disorders later in life.

“My hope is that the habits they develop in childhood, just like brushing their teeth twice a day, will naturally stay a part of their daily routine throughout life,” she says.

Developing those skin-care habits is important because one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, Nord points out. Even people with darker skin can get skin cancer. And we now live in a time when we have many options for protecting our skin.

For instance, consumers can find a variety of lightweight, nongreasy lotions designed specifically for the face and neck. “Your sunscreen should be considered your facial lotion,” says dermatology professor Susan Swetter, MD. “It works to moisturize the skin as well as to prevent photoaging and skin cancer.”

And in recent years, companies have begun offering stylish sun-protective clothing and hats. The fabrics block more of the harmful rays than typical summer wear, and hats often have longer backs that cover more of the neck. In fact, Nord says the colorful hat worn by one of her daughters has prompted classmates to ask their parents for “a hat like Kendall’s.”

The dermatologists say they cover up before spending more than a few minutes outdoors. Sunscreen, hats, visors and sunglasses are a given, but Nord takes some additional measures. For swimming she uses rash guards — shirts popular among surfers to prevent abrasions from their boards. And if her arms are exposed while driving, she wears cool, pull-on sleeves (available at some sporting goods stores and elsewhere) and lightweight gloves to protect her hands.

Serving as skin-care role models is crucial to Swetter and Nord, as parents and as dermatologists. Teenagers — who tend to shun protective measures — are a particular challenge, says Swetter. Yet skipping those precautions could have dire consequences, particularly for athletes who spend hundreds of hours practicing and competing outdoors every year.

“It’s difficult to get young athletes to take sun-protective measures, mainly because young people aren’t thinking about the harm that current sun exposure will cause 20 or 30 years down the road,” says Justin Gordon, MD, a clinical assistant professor of dermatology who helped found the Stanford University Network for Sun Protection Outreach, Research and Teamwork, launched in 2012.

SUNSPORT, as it’s known, seeks to educate Stanford athletes, coaches, fans and community groups about ways of limiting the sun’s harmful effects. For example, the program encourages athletes to avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the radiation is most potent; check their skin each month; and see a doctor if a spot grows, bleeds or changes in appearance.

Gordon came up with the phrase “stretch and slather” to remind athletes to apply sunscreen while they’re warming up. A runner who also plays golf and tennis, Gordon says he religiously adheres to the “slather” part of the slogan.

“But I’m not the best about stretching,” he adds. “I guess that’s because I’m a dermatologist.”

Tips for protecting your skin

  • Choose a sunscreen with a sun-protection factor of at least 30 that is broad-spectrum, meaning it blocks both UVB and UVA rays. Fewer sunscreens blockUVA rays, so look for one that contains avobenzone and octocrylene.
  • Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outside, and then reapply every two hours or after water exposure.
  • To limit damage from UVA radiation, which remains fairly constant throughout the day and can penetrate through glass, apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen each morning to the face, neck and chest.
  • Limit outdoor exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Wear clothing made from sun-protective (or ultraviolet-protection factor) fabrics. This includes wide-brimmed hats, long sleeves and swimming cover-up shirts called rash guards, popularized by surfers. Apply sunscreen to any exposed skin.

Susan Ipaktchian is the director of print and web communications for the medical school's Office of Communication & Public Affairs. Email her at susani@stanford.edu

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