Of the recent plethora of products being pushed on men as essential to their well-being, there’s no lotion, serum or stick more dogmatically encouraged—besides maybe deodorant—than SPF. Face lotions, sportswear, and, of course, sunscreens themselves are all clamoring to address the new maxim for men and women alike: SPF, every day, no exceptions. But unlike deodorant, or, say, caffeinated under-eye toner, neglecting your SPF regimen can have serious consequences. Brace for the scary facts: One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70, and the most aggressive form of skin cancer, malignant melanoma, has seen a 53 percent uptick in cases over the last decade. The average age for a skin cancer diagnosis is 63, but men 49 and under are more likely to develop melanoma than any other form of cancer.
As startling as the statistics might be, it’s tempting to chalk this up to the hippie baby boomers’ literal time in the sun—before sunscreen was as powerful and ubiquitous as it is today-—coming home to roost. There’s some truth to that. And the rise of tanning beds in the late 70s couldn’t have helped them much either. But boomers aren’t the only ones boosting skin cancer rates. During a recent visit with Lauren Boos at BHSkin Dermatology in Glendale, I asked if I—a typical-ass weekend warrior who spends most of his weekday basking in the cold glow of a computer screen—really needed to slather on the SPF every day. She’d heard this one before: “We see a lot of skin cancer patients who say they’ve spent most of their life in an office. But offices have windows. Your car has windows. Then all those minutes walking to and from your car...UV exposure is cumulative, so it all adds up.”
Here I was getting worried about the “base burns” I’d allow myself every late-spring growing up—and, let’s be honest, as recently as this May—to prime my summer tan. To be clear, yes, that is an idiotic tanning strategy, and those bad sunburns can play a devastating role in raising your risk of skin cancer. But they’re only a part of the story. The sun doesn’t care that you’re at your desk. If you’re enjoying a view, you’re probably catching some radiation.
Upon learning this, I meekly pushed back with Boos, “But don’t windows have, like, UV coating?” “Some. But not enough to protect your skin.” Modern windshields contain a layer of protective plastic giving them an SPF of around 50, but the side windows on your car, made of light, tempered glass to protect you in an accident have an SPF of around 16. And according to Boos, “The difference between 15 and 30 SPF is huge. Anything over 50 is just overkill.” But considering the SPF of windows started to feel like a bit of overkill on the skin care fear mongering. Like I was in a dermatologist’s office or something. Honestly, who doesn’t like a little tan? Let the windows have their way with me. Yet it turns out the UV rays that tan you, UVBs, are easily blocked by most windows, so the only thing leaking through are UVAs. No tasty tan, just straight up skin damage. Hell nah.
The good news, though, is that because sun damage is cumulative, the way you start treating your skin now can have a huge impact on where you end up at 63, or 49 for that matter. And for all you office dwellers out there, if you’re not out in the sun all day, you’re likely fine with just one application of 30+ SPF every morning. Thankfully, a wide range of daily moisturizers contain just that, and without the smelly, eye-stinging rigmarole you hated as a kid. It can actually feel downright good. “Look for zinc and titanium oxides on the labels. Those are direct UV blockers without any unnecessary chemicals.” And the UVA rays that sneak through your windows can also wriggle through the woven fibers of your clothing, so look out for SPF ratings there too, especially on activewear you’ll be donning outdoors.
If your long-term safety isn’t enough reason to work SPF into your daily life alongside soap and toothpaste, which don’t even save your life, maybe its anti-aging qualities will do the trick. A study found that people who used SPF 15 or higher on a daily basis displayed 24 percent less skin aging than those who used none. That’s a quarter of your skin’s life right there. Make it count.