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14 Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer (Besides Sunscreen)

Of course, you need sunscreen: But skin cancer prevention requires so much more. Here's expert advice on keeping your skin safe.

Attractive woman with healthy skin applying sunscreen to shoulder wearing white sun hatAila Images/Shutterstock

The real deal with sunscreen

There’s no way around it: Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (mainly from the sun) is a major risk factor for most skin cancers, not to mention wrinkles, premature aging, and vision loss. According to the American Cancer Society, UV rays damage DNA in skin cells, which cause abnormalities in cell growth. And while, yes, everyone should properly apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen—be sure to follow these dos and don’ts—sunscreen alone can’t fully protect you, warns the American Academy of Dermatology. Check out some more surprising causes of skin cancer.

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Pop this vitamin regularly

“Nicotinamide is a form of vitamin B-3 that’s been shown to help protect against skin cancer,” says Kim Nichols, MD, a dermatologist in Greenwich, Connecticut, and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. “It fights free radical production and also repairs DNA that’s been destroyed by UVA light, which can lead to skin cancer.” Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that a person’s risk of developing a secondary nonmelanoma skin cancer was reduced by 23 percent after taking 500 mg of nicotinamide twice daily for 12 months. “If you have a history of a basal or squamous cell carcinoma or if you’re fair-skinned and live in a very sunny area, like Florida or California, talk to your physician about taking nicotinamide,” says Dr. Nichols.

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Get car smart

About 53 percent of skin cancers in the United States develop on the left side of the body, which happens to be the drivers’ side, notes a study in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology. To shield skin from dangerous rays while in a vehicle, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying a transparent window film made to block UVA rays. (Apparently, while car windows already filter out UVB rays, only partially-treated windshields protect against UVA rays.)

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Add an antioxidant to your AM routine

“Antioxidants play a huge role in skin cancer prevention,” says Dr. Nichols. “I recommend using a topical vitamin C serum under your sunscreen daily to help fight off free radical skin cell damage from the sun and the environment.” When shopping, look for formulations that contain between 7 and 12 percent ascorbic acid.

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Wash your new sundress before you wear it

It turns out that tossing your new cotton (or cotton-blend) clothes into the washing machine two to three times before wearing can often permanently increase their sun-protection factor. (It has to do with the fiber shrinkage, notes the Skin Cancer Foundation.) For extra safety, consider including SunGuard in the load as well. This laundry add-in contains the sunscreen Tinosorb, which increases the sun-protective factor of clothes to 30. And it’ll stay that way for 20 washes.

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Cover up better at the beach

“Clothing is far superior to sunscreen when it comes to skin cancer prevention at the beach,” says Estee Williams, MD, assistant clinical professor in dermatology at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. However, not all cover-ups are created equal. For instance, once a T-shirt gets wet, it’s protection value decreases to about a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 3, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Instead, look for beach cover-ups that have a UPF value of 30 or higher. “I recommend Coolibar and Mott50 products,” says Dr. Williams.

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Use protective makeup

“Makeup, whether it contains SPF or not, is inherently sun-protective due to the pigments and minerals it contains,” says Dr. Williams. “That said, all women who wear makeup should look for brands that also have broad spectrum SPF in them because the benefit is additive.” Bonus: A lot of SPF-infused foundations have other good-for-your-skin perks, like antioxidants.

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Doctor dermatologist examines birthmark of patient. Checking benign moles. Laser Skin tags removalAlbina Glisic/Shutterstock

See the derm

Between the ages of 18 and 40, you should see a dermatologist for a full-body exam every two years. After age 40, go annually. “We can spot moles that look suspicious before they turn into something that’s dangerous,” says Dr. Nichols. “Plus, early skin cancers tend to be slower growing, so when caught early, you can prevent a lot of morbidity.” Also: Keep an eye out for these 10 signs you need to see a dermatologist ASAP.

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Exercise outdoors during these hours

Studies show that long-distance runners have higher rates of skin cancer than others, likely due to prolonged sun exposure,” notes Dr. Williams. No matter if it’s a bright day or overcast, the sun’s rays are at their strongest and most dangerous between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., according to the CDC. “Because of this, it’s best to schedule any outdoors workouts before or after these peak hours,” says Dr. Williams. If you have to be outside when the sun’s directly overhead, wear a wide-brimmed hat. And when you are outdoors exercising, don’t forget these stay-safe tips.

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Moisturize better

Dr. Williams highly recommends using a daily moisturizer with added SPF protection, noting that “with each layered product that has sunscreen, the protection increases.” The problem? A brand-new study in the journal PLOS ONE found that those who use SPF-infused moisturizers tend to miss the area around the eyelids (and particularly near the nose), which is especially vulnerable to skin cancer. Maybe consider a tinted eye cream with SPF.

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Wear protective clothes off the beach, too

Simply wearing clothes is a form of skin cancer prevention—but not all clothing offers equal protection. For example, a typical T-shirt is less protective than wearing SPF 15, notes the CDC. Your best sun-protective bets: Dark and bright colored clothing (which absorb more harmful UV rays than their light-colored counterparts) and items with a tight weave or a heavy fabric (like polyester, Lycra, nylon, or denim). For hats, choose one with a three-inch or greater brim to shield ears, neck, face, and eyes—and one made from a tightly woven fabric, like canvas. For more on how to buy the best in sun-protective clothes, see what dermatologists have to say.

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Take care of your lips

Did you know that lips have barely any melanin, which means that have very little natural protection from the sun’s dangerous rays? It’s true. That’s why it’s important to either wear lip balm or a lipstick daily with an SPF of 15 or higher. “It’s especially important for those with a history of skin cancer, frequent cold sores, or smokers, all of whom are at an increased risk of skin cancer on the lip,” says Dr. Williams. Just remember: Super-shiny lip glosses actually attract UV rays to your lips, putting them at an increased risk of damage. Here are some of the best lip balms with SPF.

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Upgrade your sunglasses

Wearing sunglasses shield the delicate skin around the eyes from dangerous UV exposure, making this an easy skin cancer prevention strategy. The best part: Most sunnies sold in the United States block both UVA and UVB rays already, regardless of their price tag. To amp your protection, however, the CDC suggests opting for wraparounds that block rays from the sides as well.

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Add this to your PM beauty routine

Retinoids (aka vitamin A derivatives) may help prevent basal cell carcinoma, a non-melanoma skin cancer, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, which is why Dr. Nichols recommends using them every night. “Retinoids become ineffective when exposed to the sun, that’s why you want to use them in the evening,” she says. “They work to help repair DNA damage while you’re sleeping.” It’s best to start with a retinol (the over-the-counter version of a retinoid) that’s under 1 percent because a higher concentration can be irritating at first. Learn more about the differences between retinol and retinoid.

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Never indoor tan

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, tanning beds and lights are classified as carcinogens, meaning exposure increases the risk of developing melanoma, basal cell, and squamous cell skin cancers. That means avoiding these devices is an excellent means of skin cancer prevention. If you need that bronzed look, consider a self-tanner instead. Know these 51 things dermatologists want you to know about skin cancer.

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Holly Pevzner
Holly Pevzner is a health and parenting writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her work has appeared in Family Circle, Parents, Psychology Today, Real Simple, and many more. For more on Holly, visit hollypevzner.com.