4 sun-safety facts every older adult should know

You’re never too old for sunscreen. Here’s what you need to know to help protect your skin.

Nancy Fitzgerald
Mature man getting sunscreen applied to his nose.

Think sun-worshipping teenagers are the only ones who need to stock up on sunscreen? Think again. Of the 5 million Americans treated for skin cancer every year, the overwhelming majority are older than 65, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

It’s great if you’ve managed to avoid the disease so far, but you’re not out of the woods yet. That’s because the sun exposure you’ve had over your lifetime can catch up with you. What’s more, aging skin poses new risks. 

“Most of us would be fibbing if we said we’d never had a sunburn,” says Shane Chapman, M.D., chief of dermatology at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center. 

“The damage sun exposure does to your skin during your childhood and teen years increases your risk of skin cancer later,” says Dr. Chapman. “The last thing you want to do is introduce more damage to skin that’s already compromised.”

Even one bad sunburn in your senior years could be the final straw that leads to a skin cancer diagnosis, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Unfortunately, 13% of older adults have had a sunburn in the past year — and that rate nearly doubles for seniors with sun-sensitive skin (meaning you burn quickly), data from the CDC shows. 

The facts about your risk for skin damage might surprise you. Here are four skin care facts that will help you stay safe in the sun.

Fact #1: The Sun Poses a Special Hazard for Older Adults

As you get older, your skin becomes thinner. That lets the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate more deeply, damaging your cells’ DNA. To make matters worse, your body’s ability to handle those rays goes down with each passing year.

“You may have gotten the majority of sun damage when you were younger,” says Dr. Chapman, “but adding to the DNA damage when you’re older is even more dangerous because your immune system is less likely to be able to repair itself. Our immunity just isn’t as strong as it was when we were 15.”

Remember that trip to the beach with your friends back in college? Your skin remembers it, too. “You accumulate risk over a lifetime of sun exposure,” explains Dr. Chapman. “It doesn’t go away or reverse. After a lifetime of sun exposure, you’re definitely at risk of skin cancer.”

In fact, the American Academy of Dermatology notes that having five or more serious sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 increases your risk of melanoma by 80%. 

Fact #2: Your Medicine Cabinet May Dampen Fun in the Sun 

Certain medications can increase your risk of sunburn, says Dr. Chapman. Many antibiotics that are prescribed to treat rosacea or urinary tract infections, which are common among older adults, can make skin more sensitive to the sun, causing it to burn more easily.

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen and naproxen may cause a similar reaction. So can certain medications used to steady an irregular heartbeat or treat high blood pressure, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. 

Ask your doctor or pharmacist if any of your prescriptions require you to be extra-wary of time in the sun.

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Fact #3: UV Rays Damage Everyone’s Skin

Having darker skin, or skin that “tans easily,” doesn’t protect you from the sun’s damage. Those rays will still penetrate your skin and interfere with your cells’ DNA, says Dr. Chapman. Sun damage on darker skin tones may also appear in the form of uneven skin tone or dark spots due to changes in pigmentation.

It’s true that the rate of skin cancer is lower among people of color, according to the American Cancer Society, but low risk does not equal no risk. Everyone can get melanoma from too much exposure to the sun, reports the CDC.

Fact #4: Protection Is as Easy as Wearing Sunscreen

This drugstore staple is the easiest way to help prevent sunburn and protect your skin from more damage. But owning a bottle isn’t enough, says Dr. Chapman. You’ve got to use it every day for it to do any good.

Unfortunately, most older adults don’t wear sunscreen often enough. A 2018 study in the journal Gerontologist showed that only 26% of all older adults regularly use sunscreen when they head outdoors.

And that’s too bad. Sunscreen, along with protective clothing and wide-brimmed hats, is a simple and effective way to help avoid burns. 

Sunscreen works by filtering out the sun’s harmful rays. Some do that by forming a chemical barrier on your skin that absorbs the rays. You’ll see ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate and octisalate listed on the label. Others form a physical block by using minerals that scatter the UV radiation. You can recognize them by ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. 

“I prefer the physical blocks,” says Dr. Chapman. “They work really well by reflecting the sun’s rays instead of just absorbing them.” 

But which kind is best? “The one you use,” he says. So pick one and stick with it.

“If you don’t like the way it feels, if it’s too greasy, or you don’t like the smell, you won’t wear it regularly,” he says. “And regular use is the most important thing. There’s no excuse for getting another sunburn.”

Top Sunscreen Tips and Tricks

Here’s what you need to know about choosing — and wearing — sunscreen.

Go full-spectrum. Choose a sunscreen that protects you from both kinds of ultraviolet light: UVA, which ages your skin, causing wrinkling and spots, and UVB, which causes sunburn. Make sure the label promises “broad-spectrum” coverage.

Also, take a look at the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen can lose its effectiveness over time, notes the Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF). 

Buy high. When it comes to sunscreen, more is definitely more. The higher the sun protection factor, the better. SPF is calculated by the time it takes for skin to burn when it’s protected with sunscreen, compared to how long it takes without sunscreen.

For everyday use, look for an SPF of 15 or higher. On days when you’ll be outside for long stretches at a time, choose an SPF of 30 or higher, suggests the SCF. 

Use year-round. Sunscreen isn’t just for summer. “Even on winter days, there’s ultraviolet light coming through,” says Dr. Chapman, “so you’re still getting some exposure. The radiation can be especially damaging when it reflects off snow.”

There’s no free pass on cloudy days, either. And don’t forget to use sunscreen on long car rides — the UV rays can come through the window.

Apply early — and often. Make sure you apply your sunscreen half an hour before you head outside, giving it plenty of time to dry. 

His most important tip? “Reapply every two hours, especially if you’re at the beach, doing water sports or getting sweaty. You may be using SPF 50, but after two hours it’s not a 50 anymore — it evaporates and becomes inactive.”

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