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By Tina Pavane
A healthy dose of sunshine is often thought of as nature’s healing elixir. As the sun greets the skin, it can boost our mood, immunity, vitamin D, and may even protect us from getting some health conditions. But there is also a dark side to spending too much time in the sun—it speeds up skin aging and promotes skin cancer.
Skin cancers can be caused by a combination of genetic factors and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation coming from the sun or artificial lights, such as those in indoor tanning beds and sunlamps. As UVA and UVB rays penetrate the skin, they causesdamage to the skin cells’ genetic material, which can cause the cells to transform into cancer.
In response to a rise in skin cancers in the US, the Office of the Surgeon General released A Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer (2014) with the goal of educating the public about strategies to prevent skin cancer.
Sunburn is the canary in the coal mine for skin cancer. The more you are exposed to the sun’s rays, the more sunburned you can get, the higher your risk for skin cancer. Sun-sensitive people — people who are fair-skinned, freckled, or have light hair and eye color — need to be particularly vigilant when venturing outdoors. Skin-sensitive people can burn in just one hour if they are not protected properly. But anyone can get sunburned, even people with dark skin. People who are overweight, perform exercise outdoors, and binge drink are also at high risk for sunburns.
While there is nothing you can do to change your genetic susceptibility to skin cancer, you can defend yourself by avoiding excessive and needless exposure and by following sun-protection measures consistently and correctly. And sun safety is not just for vacations and trips to the seaside — it should be front-of-mind all year round, and particularly in the spring and summer.
How to Be a Sun-Protection Enthusiast
As a general rule, try to avoid outdoor activities between the hours of 10 and 2 when the sun is highest in the sky, and when the UV index is greater than 3. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) posts the UV index for cities around the US on their Sunwise website and mobile app.
Additionally, practice sun safety every day, even when it’s cloudy and even during winter. Many people make the mistake of relying on just one method. They slap on a few drops of sunscreen and dart out the door. But when it comes to protection against sunburn, you might not realize that barrier methods—clothing and shade—are better than sunscreen alone.
To be a sun-protection devotee follow all five of these sun protection options:
- Seek Shade: Pick a structure that completely blocks the sun — under an opaque umbrella, pop-up sun tent, or awning. Be aware of sun that reflects off of metal and concrete structures, sand, and water.
- Cover Up: Wear sleeves down to your wrists and pants down to your ankles that are made from tightly-weaved, dark fabrics that don’t allow light to seep through. Make sure you can’t see your hand through it. Some items of clothing has a UV rating similar to sunscreen that tells you how well it can block UV rays.
- Put On A Hat: Pick a hat that has a wide brim of at least 4-inches around so your face is protected. Although straw hats have holes that light can seep through, and baseball caps leave the nape of your next exposed, they are better than nothing; but hats that provide more coverage are better choices.
- Wear Sunglasses: UV rays can also damage your eyes and the skin around them. Pick a lens that has 100 percent UV protection for both UVA and UVB rays, and select frames that wrap around the side of your face. If you wear contacts, you still need UV protective sunglasses or to wear UV-blocking lenses. Adding a hat or sun visor can help protect against light that slips in around the frame.
- Apply Sunscreen: Wearing sunscreen, or sunless-tanning products, is not a free pass to stay in the sun. Sunscreen will not be able to completely block the sun. Pick a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays that offers a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher (anything higher is not necessarily better and may give you false reassurances). Check the expiration date. When the instructions say to apply liberally that means apply a thick coat everywhere skin is exposed to the sun. Apply it 15 minutes before going into the sun to give it time to be effective. Put one layer on, wait a few minutes and apply a second coat to make sure the entire surface has been covered and you haven’t missed a spot. Reapply in 2 hours or sooner (80 minutes) if you have gone swimming, have been sweating, or have showered, as no sunscreen is waterproof, only water resistant. You may need someone to help you apply hard-to-reach places particularly if you are obese. Don’t forget the ears, hands, feet, back, back of the neck and top of the head for those who are bald. Use a lip balm with sunscreen, too. Carry sunscreen with you when you are out and about, and avoid leaving it in a hot location (such as in cars) where it can degrade rapidly. Parents of younger children are encouraged to apply sunscreen before they go to school and to reapply before heading out for recess and sports activities. The same goes for teenagers. If you tell them the sun can change the way their skin looks they may be more likely to use sunscreen than telling them they might get skin cancer.
For more information about protecting you and your family from the damaging effects of the sun visit the following websites.
Environmental Protection Agency Sun Safety
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Skin Cancer
American Cancer Society Be Safe in the Sun
American Academy of Pediatrics Sun Safety
Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Sun Safety Videos