Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(2):310-311

What are the safe-sun guidelines?

Safe-sun guidelines are four ways to protect your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

1. Avoid the sun

Sunlight damages your skin. The sun is strongest at the middle of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. During these hours, the sun can do the most damage to your skin. Sunburns and suntans are signs that your skin has been damaged. The more damage the sun does to your skin, the more likely it is that you will get early wrinkles, skin cancer, and other skin problems.

2. Use sunscreen

Use a sunscreen or sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, even on cloudy days. Use a lot of sunscreen and rub it in well. You should put the sunscreen on about 30 minutes before you go into the sun. Put the sunscreen everywhere the sun's rays might touch you, even your ears and the back of your neck. Men should also put it on any bald areas on the top of their head. Put more sunscreen on every hour or so if you are sweating or swimming.

Remember that using sunscreen is just one part of a program to prevent skin cancer. To greatly lower your risk, you must follow all of the safe-sun guidelines.

3. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses

If you have to be out in the sun, cover up your skin. A wide-brimmed hat will help protect your face, neck, and ears from the sun. A hat with a 6-inch brim all around is the best. Baseball caps don't protect the back of your neck and the tops of your ears. Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes from the sun. Choose sunglasses that block ultraviolet-A (UVA) and ultraviolet-B (UVB) rays. Wearing sunglasses can protect your eyes from cataracts.

Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and long pants made of tightly woven fabric. If the clothes fit loosely, they will be cooler.

4. Don't try to get a tan

Don't use tanning salons. Tanning booths damage your skin just like real sunlight does.

What else can I do?

Some doctors think it's a good idea to do a monthly skin check. Ask your doctor about this. If your doctor thinks it's a good idea for you, check your skin once a month for signs of skin cancer, such as moles. The earlier skin cancer is found, the greater the chance that it can be cured. Try doing your skin check on the same date every month. Pick a day that you can remember, like the date of your birthday or the day you pay bills.

Stand in front of a full-length mirror and use a hand-held mirror to check every inch of your skin, including the bottoms of your feet and the top of your head. Have someone help you check the top of your head. Try using a blow-dryer set on low speed to move your hair.

Look for any change in a mole or the appearance of a new mole. Any moles that appear after age 30 should be watched carefully and shown to your doctor.

The “ABCDE” rule can help you look for signs of skin cancer. When looking at moles on your skin, look for the following:

‘ABCDE’ Rule

Asymmetry: When both sides of a mole don't look the same.

Border: The edges of a mole are blurry or jagged.

Color: The color of a mole changes—if it's darker than before, the color spreads or goes away, or more than one color appears (blue, red, white, pink, purple, or gray).

Diameter: When a mole is larger than one fourth inch in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser).

Elevation: When a mole is raised above the skin and has a rough surface.

You should also watch for these skin changes:

  • A mole that bleeds

  • A mole that grows fast

  • A scaly or crusted growth on the skin

  • A sore that won't heal

  • A mole that itches

  • A place on your skin that feels rough like sandpaper

If you notice a mole that has changed, or if you have a new mole that doesn't look like your other moles, visit your doctor. Skin cancer can be treated successfully if it is treated early.

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Copyright © 2002 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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