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Made in the Shade: Sun Safety for Seniors

As we get on in years, we might think—with a twinge—that it’s too late for us to realize our youthful dreams of scaling Mount Everest or circumnavigating the globe or performing center stage at the New York Metropolitan Opera. We might also think it’s too late for us to do anything to avoid skin cancer. So why bother trying to protect ourselves from the sun, right?

Wrong. According to the CDC, most cases of skin cancer appear in people over age 65. Cases of melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, rise steadily across the life span, peaking amongst 80-to-84-year-olds and declining only slightly from that point on.

Why is skin cancer so prevalent in later life? For one thing, we’re living longer. Today, people who reach the age of 65 can expect to live, on average, two more decades, which gives the damage caused by sunburns in our younger years time to “mature” and surface as skin cancer. Skin gets thinner as we age, allowing ultraviolet rays (UV) to penetrate more deeply. And finally, many seniors take medications—everything from common antibiotics and NSAID pain relievers to antidepressants, diuretics, and blood-pressure and cholesterol meds—that elevate sun sensitivity.

We asked board-certified gerontologist Maureen Sauvage, D.O., supervising physician of Quarry Hill’s inhouse primary care practice what she recommends as a sensible sun safety strategy for her patients. Consider these pointers if the skin you’re in is 65-plus:

1. Make sunscreen a daily habit, like brushing your teeth. Remember that UV rays can damage skin in as little as 15 minutes. So even if you are only running outside to water plants or walking from your car into the grocery store, you need protection. Rays can penetrate both clouds and glass, so don’t assume that you can “go bare” because it’s cloudy or because you’ll be inside a car or even in your house if you’ll be sitting by a sunny window.

2. Choose a sunscreen that’s SPF 15 or more (SPF 30 or more if you’re fair-skinned). A sunscreen’s SPF (sun protection factor) indicates how well it absorbs and reflects the sun’s rays. SPF 30 means the product absorbs 97% of burning rays.

3. Go “broad-spectrum.” Sunscreens labeled as such help shield you from both UVA and UVB rays. UVA rays penetrate the skin’s lower levels and account for 95% of all rays. UVB rays, the underdogs percentage-wise, nonetheless cause more sunburns and sun damage.

4. Play by the clock. Stay indoors or in the shade between 10 am and 4 pm, when UV rays are at their strongest.

5. Use sunscreen correctly. Apply it at least 20 minutes before you head outdoors and reapply at least every two hours. And use plenty—most people underestimate how much they need.

6. Wear protective clothing. Wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and UV-filtering sun glasses are de rigeur when you’re going to be in the sun for extended periods. You might also want to purchase some of the new hats, shirts, and pants designed to filter UV rays.

So while it may be time to say sayonara to buying a Harley or joining the circus, you’re in the prime of life for exercising sun safety. This summer, go forth (liberally suncreened) and have fun.