Tanning Skin Cancer
Credit: Copyright 2018 Aleksandra Kovac/Stocksy

I'm hyper-aware of applying sunscreen nowadays, but this is a relatively new development. SPF was an unwelcome part of my teenage beauty routine, even though I was a lifeguard at an outdoor pool. I'd begrudgingly apply it to the tops of my shoulders and my face, but only after incessant nagging. My goal was to get the deepest, darkest tan as possible.

I came to my senses in college after learning about the effects of sun exposure and aging, and more importantly, its link to skin cancer. But even though I've smartened up (and thankfully never, ever visited a tanning bed), my annual skin exams with my dermatologist give me intense anxiety. I have to force myself to go.

The stats are scary. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 86 percent of all melanomas are caused by exposure to UV radiation from the sun. The American Cancer Society reports that more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the U.S. than all other cancers combined.

Combating those terrifying statistics starts with education about the real damage the sun can do to your skin and how to fight against it—AKA, regularly and effectively applying sunscreen. That's New York City-based dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Hale's goal, and why she teamed up with Coppertone for the Protect What Matters Most campaign in partnership with 4-H. It's an educational program that teaches kids and families the importance of skin protection, like regular skin exams and applying sunscreen.

"We know that over-exposure during youth increases our chance [for skin cancer] later in life," Dr. Hale tells me. "So if we can really get our children to adapt those sun-safe behaviors, we can make a big difference."

Another precautionary method is a self-exam—and the Skin Cancer Foundation has a detailed outline of the exact steps you need to take to do so.

When applying sunscreen, Dr. Hale suggests a shot glass-sized amount for your full body and an even sheen for sprays.

One of the most important messages she's trying to get out there? Even if you were a tanning-bed visitor, or a sun-worshipper like me, it's definitely not too late to take care of your skin by covering up with SPF 30 (or higher!).

"There's a very common stat that's totally wrong and it's proven to be wrong—that your damage is already done," she tells me. "It's not true at all. The truth is that only about 25 percent of our lifetime damage occurs by age 18. So by the time we're adults, only about a quarter of the damage is done. It's an ongoing process."

I rely on dermatologists' exams on top of self-examinations. And even though I'm a mess for the entire day leading up to my appointment, I'm always glad to have the reassurance that all is okay.

"The real key is to get checked because when skin cancer is caught early, it's almost always curable," says Dr. Hale.