As the days grow longer and warmer, many of us look forward to spending more time outdoors. Whether it’s relaxing at the beach or doing outdoor chores, guarding against the damage caused by the sun is important. When I was growing up, sunscreen was hardly ever used and was often promoted as a way to get an even darker tan. Fast forward a few decades and most of us recognize that “tan” is a euphemism for sun damage. Unfortunately, wrinkled skin is not the only eventuality of over-exposure to the sun’s damaging rays. Skin cancer in all its various forms can be directly linked to exposure to the sun’s UVA and UVB rays.
Learning the steps to take to prevent the damaging effects of the sun can help ensure that you enjoy your summer months while maintaining good skin health. The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention named the Friday before Memorial Day as “Don’t Fry Day” to increase awareness about sun safety. They suggest simple steps to minimize the damage the sun can cause. These steps include avoiding tanning and burning, staying in the shade when possible, using liberal amounts of sunscreen, and wearing protective clothing if you cannot avoid sun exposure. They even have a catchy phrase to help remember the steps: Slip! Slop! Slap! and Wrap. When outside, both on sunny and cloudy days, slip on a tight woven shirt, slop on broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, slap on a sun-shading, wide-brimmed hat, and wrap on UVA- and UVB-resistant sunglasses to protect your eyes from sun damage.
Each of these steps will help ensure that you minimize your risk of developing skin cancer in your lifetime. Sadly, skin cancer is on the rise in the United States, and it is estimated that over two million cases of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers will be diagnosed this year. In addition, over 76,000 Americans will be diagnosed with the more serious malignant melanoma.
Many of these diagnoses can be avoided if we take steps to limit our over-exposure to sun. One effective way is to avoid time outdoors when the sun’s UVA and UVB rays are most potent between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If this is not possible, try to cover up sufficiently with clothing and hats that block out the sun’s rays. Be sure to wear hats that cover sensitive areas that are often missed like ears and the back of your neck. When possible, try to find shade, and always provide shade for children. Children are particularly vulnerable to sunburns, and burns they get today can be the underlying cause of skin cancers they may develop in adulthood.
Sunscreens are great for helping to reduce the impact of the harmful effects of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays, but they are vastly limited. The key to successful sunscreen use is to apply one with an SPF of at least 30, which will block UVB rays which cause you to burn. An SPF 30 product will block 97 percent of UVB; however, that does not mean that SPF 60 blocks twice as much or last twice as long. All sunscreen needs to be reapplied at least every two hours—and more often if you sweat or get wet. It is best to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure.
SPF ratings have no impact on the sun’s UVA rays, which can be even more damaging. These are the rays that don’t cause your skin to burn but rather reach into the deeper layers of your skin and can cause more long-term damage like wrinkles and skin cancer. So when looking for sunscreen, be sure to look for ones that also protect against UVA damage.
Sunscreen makers can use both chemicals and barrier-type compounds to protect against UVA. Some makers use zinc oxide and titanium to block UVA while others include chemicals like Parsol 1789 and Mexoryl. Another key to using sunscreen successfully is to use adequate amounts. You should apply one ounce of sunscreen during every application. It’s estimated that most people apply far less, and many do not reapply appropriately. Remember sunscreen is only effective when it is properly used.
Hopefully, you will heed this advice and limit overexposure to the sun’s harmful rays. Everyone wants to be able to enjoy the great outdoors and all it has to offer. Just be prudent when spending your time outside, and your skin will thank you today and in the years to come.
Dr. Hardy practices obstetrics and gynecology at Atlantic Ob/Gyn located in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake. Please visit www.atlanticobgyn.com.