You know your SPF numbers like you know your phone numbers, you can recite the difference between UVA and UVB rays like some people rattle off dinner orders, and you know exactly how many minutes should go by before you reapply -- in other words, you are a true sunscreen guru. But even the most knowledgeable and diligent sunscreen users can come home from a day in the great outdoors with burnt skin in certain places. What spots do we tend to miss when we're slathering ourselves with SPF?
Behind the Knees
When we apply sunscreen, we tend to go part by part. First, we'll do the shoulders, then the upper arms, then the lower arms. Unfortunately, some parts, like the crook of the elbow, get left out because they're in a sort of no-man's-land.
That's probably why so many people forget to lather up the back of the knee. You may apply sunscreen to your lower leg, knee and thigh, but the back of the knee routinely gets snubbed. This is especially apt to happen if you apply sunscreen to your legs while you're sitting -- if your leg is bent, you may not realize you haven't covered that crease. But once you flip over to sun your back, the skin is exposed to the sun. A burn behind the knee makes it uncomfortable to walk, so give this part of the leg the attention it deserves.
In a 2004 study performed in Europe, volunteers at a beach were provided with sunscreen and told they'd be evaluated on how well they used sunscreen. Even though volunteers had every reason to be diligent about sunscreen application, researchers found that the participants rarely applied the product to the tops of their feet. When asked why, 50 percent of the participants said they didn't want sand to stick to their feet [source: Lademann et al]. While the sensation may be unpleasant, our feet are just as at risk for skin cancer as the rest of our body. According to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, skin cancer on the foot often goes unnoticed because people don't check their feet as diligently as they check other body parts [source: Medical News Today]. Lessen your risk for skin cancer and flip-flop tans: apply sunscreen to your feet.
Whoa, whoa, whoa -- if you apply sunscreen at all, then surely the hands must be protected, right? Well, your palms and fingers may have the remnants of sunscreen, but people may not remember to apply sunscreen to the tops of their hands. If you're headed out for the golf course or garden, you may wear gloves at first but eventually remove them, leaving your hands exposed while the rest of your body is sunscreen-protected. Hands already spend way more time in the sun than other body parts. Not only does this constant exposure put a person at risk for developing skin cancer, your hands will start to look unsightly. The presence and appearance of age spots are exacerbated by the sun, and UV rays can damage the fingernails.
Sometimes when we apply sunscreen to our face, we focus on the stuff in the center -- the nose, cheeks and forehead. Less sunscreen makes it to the sides of our face or to our ears. And if you count on the brim of a baseball cap to protect your face, your ears are left exposed to the sun. Men with short hair or women who wear their hair up are particularly at risk for an ear burn.
Even if you manage to dab your lobes with sunscreen, you're likely not giving your ears the attention they deserve. Skin cancer cells appear on all parts of the ear, including in the rims and bowls that may seem to be protected from the sun. The ear has a pretty complicated structure, with lots of crevices and grooves, but you just need a few extra minutes to apply enough sunscreen to protect your ears.
If you're bald, you may have learned the hard way that you need to put on a hat or put sunscreen on your head. People with hair may think that their head is protected, but it's not. Whether you have thinning hair or thick, luscious locks, the sun will find its way to your scalp. If you're not wearing a hat, you need to apply sunscreen.
Sunscreen in the hair may sound like a beauty queen's worst nightmare, but you can still look pretty fashionable if you seek out a gel or spray sunscreen. Pay special attention to any bald spots or parts in your hair, particularly if you're sporting braids.
It's important to show your scalp some sunscreen love because according to a 2008 study in the Archives of Dermatology, melanoma on the scalp and the neck results in much quicker death than melanoma that appears elsewhere on the body [source: Stacy]. That may be due to how melanoma cells form and spread in those areas, as well as the fact that hair can hide the damage and prohibit early detection. In the long run, it's better to sacrifice your style and put some SPF on your scalp.
A new study shows people don't apply enough sunscreen. HowStuffWorks looks at what the right amount is and real-world tips for applying it properly.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
- George, Rebekah. "Protect these Parts Too!" Prevention. August 2009.
- Geraghty, Laurel Naverson. "Sunscreen Works but Needs Your Help: Eight Big Mistakes." New York Times. June 9, 2005. (Sept. 16, 2009) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/09/fashion/thursdaystyles/09sside.html
- Hayt, Elizabeth. "Hand Wars." New York Times. June 2, 2005. (Sept. 16, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2005/06/02/fashion/thursdaystyles/02skin.html
- "Healthy Skin Do's and Don'ts." The Skin Cancer Foundation. (Sept. 16, 2009)http://www.skincancer.org/school/teacherresources/pdf_downloads/SC1753_Dos_Donts.pdf
- Lademann, J., S. Schanzer, H. Richter, R.V. Pelchrzim, L. Zastrow, K. Golz and W. Sterry. "Sunscreen application at the beach." Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology. Aug. 19, 2004.
- Pennington, Bill. "Risks in Rain and Shine." New York Times. June 1, 2009. (Sept. 16, 2009)http://www.nytimes.com/2009/06/01/sports/golf/01pennington.html
- Redboard, Kelley Pagliai and C. William Hanke. "The Ears, a High Risk Area for Skin Cancer." The Skin Cancer Foundation Journal. 2007. (Sept. 16, 2009)http://www.skincancer.org/the-ears-a-high-risk-area-for-skin-cancer.html
- Robins, Perry. "A Message from the President 25.2." The Skin Cancer Foundation. (Sept. 16, 2009) http://www.skincancer.org/Sun-and-Skin-News/
- Smith, Michael W. "Sun Damaged Skin Slideshow." WebMD. May 20, 2008. (Sept. 16, 2009) http://www.webmd.com/melanoma-skin-cancer/slideshow-sun-damaged-skin
- Stacy, Kelli Miller. "Melanoma's Site May Determine Survival." WebMD. April 18, 2008. (Sept. 16, 2009)http://www.webmd.com/melanoma-skin-cancer/news/20080421/melanomas-site-may-determine-survival
- "Sunscreen on Your Feet? Doctors Urge Sunscreen Use and Exams to Prevent Skin Cancer on Feet." Medical News Today. July 29, 2009. (Sept. 16, 2009) http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/159105.php