The summer months are almost upon us, when we will inevitably be spending more hours outside in the warm sun. It also means it’s time to seriously protect your skin.
When not kept in check, sun exposure can be dangerous. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer. The American Academy of Dermatology reports 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day in the United States.
While a lot of people turn to sunscreen and other preventions, many forget to protect sensitive areas of their face, like the lips, ears, and the area around the eyes.
Research earlier this month showed those who use high sun protection factor (SPF) facial moisturizers tend to ignore these cancer-prone parts of the face.
The research team studied 22 males and 62 females who were exposed to ultraviolet (UV) radiation over two lab visits. During one visit, they used sunscreen on their faces. On another visit, they applied SPF moisturizer.
Their pictures were taken by UV-sensitive cameras to inspect sun damage. The results found more than 16 percent of the participants failed to cover the sensitive parts of their face and head with SPF moisturizer, compared to just more than 11 percent who didn’t utilize sunscreen properly.
When it came to these results, senior study author Dr. Austin McCormick, a consultant ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon at Aintree University Hospitals in Liverpool, wrote in an email to Healthline that he and his team were surprised by the results.
“We expected the eyelid areas to be better covered by moisturizer compared to sunscreen as we thought the perception would be that moisturizers would cause less eye stinging if they accidentally seeped into the eyes. Or we expected to find no difference between the two,” he wrote.
The penchant for people to not properly protect these parts of the face have appeared to account for higher rates of nonmelanoma skin cancers at Dr. Rita Pichardo-Geisinger’s office.
Pichardo-Geisinger, a professor of dermatology at Wake Forest Baptist Health, says a lot of people discount the need to protect vulnerable areas like the lips or eyelids when heading outside.
“I think people do not pay attention to these areas — ears, lips, eyelids — and there are not specific guidelines and education regarding the use of sunscreen on these forgotten areas,” she told Healthline.
“In general, we recommend that you apply sunscreen on all exposed areas. We should recommend ‘Apply sunscreen on all exposed areas, including ears, eyelids, and lips,'” Pichardo-Geisinger added.
She says that, while she thinks educational campaigns around sun protection have been effective in recent years, a focus on these specific sensitive areas like the ears remain something of a blind spot in awareness campaigns. This poses a serious cancer risk.
Dr. Shilpi Khetarpal, a dermatologist at Cleveland Clinic, echoes those thoughts.
“Many people don’t realize that even if they’re diligent with SPF sun protection now, approximately 60 percent of sun exposure happens prior to the age of 18,” Khetarpal told Healthline.
“Also, there is a misconception that the sun only affects your skin when it is warm and sunny outside. The truth is, even on a cold, cloudy day, only about 20 percent of the UV rays are blocked,” she said.
Khetarpal suggests a skin product with SPF 30 or higher should be applied daily to areas exposed to the sun.
“Even when driving in a car, UV rays pass through the glass and can damage the skin,” she added.
What to use
Pichardo-Geisinger says that when it comes to protecting your eyelids and region below the eye, sunscreens in creams or gels can sometimes irritate this area, especially when sweating and the product drips into the eyes.
The ideal product for these parts of the eyes is one with physical blockers, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, Pichardo-Geisinger says. They’re typically found in mineral-based sunscreens.
Sunscreens that contain these ingredients can be used for the ears and lips as well.
Pichardo-Geisinger recommends to avoid products that contain chemicals like oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate — all irritants that might also cause contact dermatitis, an itchy, red skin rash.
Khetarpal adds that she’s found men often forget to apply sunscreen to their ears.
Additionally, people tend to take the lips for granted. She says women might want to check out SPF-containing lip gloss or lipstick, and that there are many SPF lip balm options out there that everyone should look into if they’re planning on spending a lot of time outdoors.
“On sunny days, I advise all people to protect their lips,” she emphasized.
Pichardo-Geisinger says that sunscreens of SPF 30 or higher coupled with sunglasses are helpful to keep the eyes safe from UV rays. She agrees with Khetarpal that lip balm with SPF is necessary and suggests brands like Avene, Eos, and Aquaphor as offering particularly good protection.
It’s also necessary to just protect your head in general. The easiest solution? Wear a hat.
Pichardo-Geisinger says brands like Columbia, Coolibar, and Tilley actually manufacture hats made with a fabric that offers SPF protection. She adds that those who are bald or have sparse hair should apply a spray sunscreen on their scalp.
“It is essential to wear SPF 30 or higher every day on the face, neck, and ears. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours regardless of the SPF or when one becomes wet, like when you’re sweating or swimming,” Khetarpal said.
“Higher SPF is generally better, as most do not apply enough sunscreen. The face should always get a lotion/cream. However, the sticks and sprays are fine on the body,” she said.
The bottom line
Research in early April showed that many people who opt for high sun protection factor (SPF) facial moisturizers tend to forget sensitive areas of the head, like the lips, eyelids, and ears, compared to those who use traditional sunscreen.
Dermatologists say that being lax on protecting these sensitive areas can account for a higher risk of skin cancer.
At the end of the day, if you’re planning on spending a lot of time outside, make sure to wear a sunscreen with an SPF 30 or higher on your face, neck, and ears. Reapply sunscreen every two hours regardless of SPF and if you become wet from swimming or sweating.
There are many lip balm, lip gloss, and lipstick products out there that contain high SPF. It’s always a good idea to wear a hat to protect your scalp, especially if you’re bald or have thinning hair.
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