Remember that bottle of waterproof sunblock you bought last year? It lied — lotion can't be waterproof or totally block out harmful rays. Thanks to new sunscreen labeling rules from the Food and Drug Administration that recently went into effect, misleading terminology has been wiped away to help consumers understand what exactly it is they're buying.
"We don't want to give users a false sense of security that they can stay in the sun for longer," says Shelby Moneer, education program manager for the Melanoma Research Foundation, which advocated for the changes. Products these days can boast being water-resistant, but now they have to clarify how long that protection lasts (either 40 or 80 minutes) to make it easier to remember when to slather more on.
The goal is to clear up any confusion, Moneer says, because although most people have gotten the message that they need sunscreen, "they're not using enough and they're not applying enough." She recommends a shot glass's worth of sunscreen every two hours — and only using products that are "Broad Spectrum" (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays) and SPF 30 or higher.
It's great if your facial moisturizer happens to have sun protection, adds Moneer, who uses an Oil of Olay product with SPF 30. But your morning routine won't matter much when you're outside at lunchtime, she cautions.
Moneer also advises wearing a hat and sleeves whenever possible — although, as a beach volleyball player, she recognizes that sometimes sun exposure is inevitable. That's not an excuse, however, for athletes and coaches not to be diligent about precautions.
In February, Leanda Cave, the 2012 Ironman and Half-Ironman world champion, announced she had skin cancer. The 35-year-old Welsh triathlete's basal-cell carcinoma wasn't life-threatening, but it was a reminder that long hours of outdoor training can have dangerous consequences, particularly when the diagnosis is melanoma.
"We have the saying, 'Once a melanoma patient, always a melanoma patient,' " says Moneer, who often has to explain that this type of skin cancer — the second-most common form of cancer for young adults — can spread to other organs.
Although promising treatments are on the horizon, prevention is critical. Changing sunscreen labels should help, but even more important is changing the way people see themselves. Moneer recently returned from a volleyball tournament in Florida, where she was bombarded with comments about how pale she looked.
"You have to be comfortable in your skin," Moneer says. "There's nothing wrong with being the color you're born with."
At his annual checkup in 2000, Kevin Stenstrom told his doctor, "You need to check out this mole or my wife is going to kill me." The spot on his shin turned out to be melanoma that had just started to spread.
"So she ended up saving my life," says Stenstrom, 50, who lives with his family in Burke, Va.
To battle the cancer, he enrolled in an experimental protocol at the National Institutes of Health for a year. Stenstrom thought he was in the clear until he found a lump in his leg in 2006. There was another in his pelvis in 2007, followed by months of grueling treatments.
In June, it'll be five years since he's had cancer, but Stenstrom isn't ready to declare his battle with melanoma over.
"It was at the six-year mark that I had my first recurrence," says the Melanoma Research Foundation advocate. "This isn't something you can remove and move on."