Nothing says summer quite like the promise of long days spent in the sun. As beaches beckon, and families fire up their backyard grills, experts say it’s also important to take measures to protect skin from the summer sun. The U.S. The Department of Health and Human Services has named the month of July UV Safety Month, as a reminder to practice sun protection during the summer months when ultraviolet (UV) rays are at their strongest.
What is ultraviolet radiation?
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation is part of the natural energy produced by the sun and by man-made, artificial sources such as indoor tanning beds, black lights, and halogen lights, according to Elizabeth Goldberg, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City, and a spokesperson for The Skin Cancer Foundation. UV radiation falls in the middle of the electromagnetic spectrum with high-energy radiation (i.e., X-rays) on one end and low-frequency radiation (i.e., radio waves) on the other.
The sun emits three different types of UV rays:
- Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays penetrate deeper than UVB rays and can cause skin cells to prematurely age and result in skin damage like sun spots, wrinkles, and skin cancer.
- Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are more intense and are responsible for sunburns and the development of the majority of skin cancers.
- Ultraviolet C (UVC) rays are really only a danger to people who work with welding torches or mercury lamps.
Since the sun’s UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Dr. Goldberg recommends limiting your sun exposure during these hours.
How dangerous is UV radiation?
Even the strongest ultraviolet light doesn’t have enough energy to deeply penetrate the body, so it’s primary health effects are on the skin. On one hand, your skin produces vitamin D when exposed to UV radiation. On the other hand, most skin cancers are the result of exposure to UV rays in sunlight, according to the American Cancer Society.
“Over time, too much exposure to UV rays can increase your risk of developing skin cancer,” Dr. Goldberg says.
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell cancers make up the majority of skin cancers, but Dr. Goldberg says that melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer is on the rise. A study published in the International Journal of Cancer found that 91% of melanomas, the most serious form of skin cancer, were linked with UV radiation, mostly due to sun exposure.
“It’s estimated the number of new melanoma cases in 2020 will increase by almost 2%,” Dr. Goldberg says. Although she attributes some of that rise to better detection methods.
While people at a higher risk of skin cancer are encouraged to get a full-body skin exam from a dermatologist once a year, Dr. Goldberg notes that skin cancer rates among younger women have also increased, a statistic attributed in part to tanning beds that utilize UVA rays.
Skin cancer risk factors include people with:
- blond or red hair and light-colored eyes
- a history of sunburns
- moles that change shape or color
- freckles or who sunburn easily
- a family history of skin cancer
- immunocompromised status
Risks also include people who are at high altitude, on certain medications, or had radiation exposure.
In addition, prolonged UV exposure can also increase the risk of eye diseases. The American Academy of Ophthalmology says long-term exposure to UV rays, without proper sun protection, can lead to cataracts, macular degeneration, and more.
There are also effects of UV radiation on the immune system, making it more difficult for the body to fight infection and respond to vaccines.
The good news is that by practicing simple sun protection measures, you can reduce the dangers of UV rays and lower your risk of developing skin cancer.
How to use sunscreen properly
It’s important to use sunscreen to protect against UV rays—but it’s critical to use it correctly. Adopt these sun protection strategies to protect your skin and reduce your risk of sun damage.
Choose the right sunscreen. Opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which will protect against UVA and UVB rays. Dr. Goldberg says to go for one that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
And if you have sensitive skin or psoriasis, Debra Jaliman, MD, a board-certified NYC dermatologist says you may want to go for a physical sunscreen—which contains mineral ingredients like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide—rather than a chemical sunscreen. “Chemical sunscreens are made of synthetic ingredients while mineral sunscreens are natural,” she says. Avoid products with Oxybenzone and PABA. If you are prone to acne, use a sunscreen labeled non-comedogenic or oil-free.
Apply sunscreen properly. The recommended amount of sunscreen is two tablespoons, or the equivalent of a shot glass. Don’t forget the tops of your ears and the back of your neck, areas that Dr. Goldberg says are often missed and are exposed to UV rays.
If you’re using a spray sunscreen, Dr. Jaliman says it’s important to rub it in thoroughly.
You’ll want to apply a half hour before going out into the sun and then bring the bottle with you wherever you go.
“It’s also important to reapply sunscreen every two hours throughout the day,” Dr. Goldberg says, “or every hour if you’re swimming or sweating.”
“It’s important to apply sunscreen a half hour before going out into the sun,” Dr. Goldberg says. “Also make sure you apply enough sunscreen, the recommended amount is two tablespoons, or the equivalent of a shot glass.”
When applying sunscreen, Dr. Goldberg says it’s important to not neglect the top of ears and the back of the neck, both areas that are often missed and exposed to UV rays.
Make sunscreen part of your routine. Start your day by applying a facial moisturizer that contains sunscreen, even in the winter. This will protect you from long-term effects of daily sun exposure: wrinkles, discolored skin, and dry skin. Plus, your skin will feel hydrated!
You should slather up the rest of your body all the time—not just when you’re going to the beach. In fact, Dr. Goldberg says you should always apply sunscreen before you leave the house to protect against sun exposure while driving.
A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology found that nearly 53% of skin cancers in the United States occur on the left side, or driver’s side of the body.
“UV light can penetrate windows at any time throughout the day and can cause the same damage as if you would be on the beach or pool,” Dr. Jaliman adds. “Every time the sun hits your skin, whether you are directly out in the sun or indoors getting indirect sun exposure, your skin is exposed to UV rays.”
Use sunscreen even when it’s cloudy. And, yes, these rules apply every day—not just sunny days. Despite the lack of sun, it’s still possible to get sunburned on a cloudy day.
“While clouds may block the sun,” Dr. Jaliman says, “they don’t block UV rays.”
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Infants and children are especially at risk from sun exposure
Infants and children have limited ability to protect themselves and rely on adults to limit their UV exposure. They also have increased surface area exposure and more fragile skin. The American Academy of Pediatrics offers the following tips:
- Keep children less than 6 months out of direct sunlight.
- Use sunscreen sparingly on children less than 6 months.
- For children older than 6 months, apply sunscreen early and often and take care to avoid the eyes.
- If possible, avoid the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone because of concerns about mild hormonal properties.
- For sensitive areas of the body, such as the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears, and shoulders, choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
- For children younger than 1 year, call or seek medical care immediately if they get a sunburn. For older children, seek medical care if there is blistering, pain, or fever.
- Protect children’s eyes with appropriately sized sunglasses with UV protection.
Other ways to protect yourself from UV exposure
Although applying sunscreen is a great habit to start—it shouldn’t be your only source of protection, says Dr. Jaliman, who is also an assistant professor of dermatology at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai and the author of Skin Rules: Trade Secrets from a Top New York Dermatologist.
If you’re going to be in the sun for longer than 15 minutes in a day, Dr. Jaliman and Dr. Goldberg recommend the following measures.
Limit time in the midday sun
The sun’s UV rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. As much as possible, limit exposure to the sun during these hours.
Wear a hat
Not only will a hat shield your face, especially the eyes, from UV rays—but it will also protect your hair and scalp. “I recommend wearing a wide brim hat with at least a 2” brim and an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 30-50,” Dr. Jaliman says.
Use an umbrella or other shading device
You can reduce sun exposure by shading under an umbrella, awning, or tree, but these structures do not offer complete protection, so it is important to use other precautions.
Don’t forget sunglasses
While protecting your skin against UV rays is important, it’s also critical to protect your eyes. Dr. Jaliman recommends buying sunglasses that offer 100% UV protection. “These glasses protect your eyes from both UVA and UVB rays,” she says. “By blocking UV rays, they prevent eye damage and protect the delicate skin surrounding your eyes.”
Buy sun-smart clothing
If you’re going to spend extensive time outdoors, be smart about the clothing and swimwear you choose. “Clothing with an Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) measures how much UV can pass through a fabric,” Dr. Jaliman says. “Look for a higher UP rating number in order to ensure better protection from the sun.” Overall, clothing is a great sun protector. Choose breathable clothing such as fabric to prevent heat rash or breakouts.
Check the UV index
Before venturing out into the sun, check the UV index, which provides a forecast of the expected risk of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. The low end of the UV scale indicates there are fewer damaging rays, the higher the score, the greater the potential of harmful rays. With a high UV index score of 6 or greater, sun damage can occur quicker, signifying that you should either limit your time in the sun or stay indoors as much as possible on those days.
And it’s not just a risk outdoors: You should avoid sunlamps and tanning beds to protect yourself from UV exposure. Being vigilant about protecting your skin in all situations will have a long-lasting impact. By following these doctor-approved guidelines, you and your family should be able to enjoy a day in the sun without the fear of UV rays.