More than 90 percent of basal cell carcinomas — the most common kind of skin cancer — develop from the neck up, yet we do a bad job of applying sunscreen to our faces. A new British study shows that most people leave vulnerable areas uncovered, namely the eyelids and between the eyes and the bridge of the nose — which is bad news, since up to 10 percent of all types of skin cancers crop up in these specific areas of the face.
Researchers asked 57 men and women to slather sunscreen on their faces without giving them any instructions. Then they used a special UV-sensitive camera to snap images of the participants, with the sunscreen-covered regions showing up in black. The pictures revealed that, on average, participants missed 10 percent of their faces. Roughly 13 percent of them skipped their eyelids, while a whopping 77 percent left that crucial space between their eyes and upper nose unprotected.
Next, the researchers tested whether the volunteers would do any better at applying sunscreen once they explained that these omitted areas were particularly prone to skin cancer. There was slight improvement. This time, the participants left about 8 percent of their faces uncovered — still not good enough.
The reason so many skin cancers develop on the eyelids is because the skin there is thinner than anywhere else on our bodies, says study coauthor Dr. Austin McCormick, an ophthalmic and oculoplastic surgeon at Aintree University Hospital Liverpool in the UK. The skin of the medial canthal area — the inner corner between the eyelids and the nose, which the vast majority of study participants left exposed — is also very thin and therefore vulnerable to UV damage and skin cancer.
Although many sunscreen manufacturers warn against dabbing on sunscreen near the eyes, McCormick insists it's perfectly safe. “However, there is a tendency for it to seep into the eye and cause stinging and irritation,” he says. “That’s why sunscreen manufacturers sometimes advise against it — not because the sunscreen is harmful. It will not cause any significant damage to the eye.”
Still, nobody likes blazing eyes, so to protect these thin-skinned areas without risking sunscreen seepage, McCormick suggests using moisturizer with high-SPF UV protection instead. Those tend to be less likely to run.
Also remember to keep your whole face protected on cloudy days, when some UV light still gets through, and even during fall, winter, and early spring. “The amount of UV light reaching you depends on many factors, including where you live, time of year, cloud cover, air pollution, and the state of the ozone layer in your area and altitude,” McCormick says. “Activities such as sailing and skiing, where the environment reflects additional UV light, increase exposure even more. Even though the sun’s intensity is less in the winter, this factor may be far outweighed by others, such as altitude and increased reflected light.”