With summer quickly approaching, many of us will find ourselves spending evenings and weekends outside enjoying the beautiful weather. Unless we’re headed to the beach for a full day, many of us don’t think about protecting our skin from the sun, and sadly too many of us end up paying a price.
The sun’s rays don’t discriminate when it comes to the damage they can do to your skin. Young or old, any ethnicity or gender, we are all susceptible to overexposing ourselves to UVA and UVB rays. Think it’s too much work to safeguard yourself each day? Let’s explore what can happen if we don’t protect our skin from the sun, and some easy tips to integrate into our daily routine.
All About UV Rays
You’ve probably noticed it on sunscreen labels and advertisements for sunglasses – the letters UVA and UVB. Many of us know that this has to do with sun exposure, but what exactly should we look out for?
The sun generates three types of ultraviolet light, called UVA, UVB, and UVC. The latter of the three is stopped at our ozone layer, but the other two travel down to us on a daily basis. UVA rays are longer, and penetrate into the deeper layer of your skin, while UVB rays have a shorter wavelength and are the ones responsible for causing damage to our skin.
Those of us who use sunscreen before going outdoors know that this product prevents the penetration of UVB rays into the top layer of our skin where we typically see damage and skin cancer occur. It also helps to deter UVA rays from entering deep into the epidermis. Choosing a product with an appropriate SPF, sun protection factor, helps to get the most out of this safeguard.
When Sun Exposure Leads To Cancer
Simply staying in the sun too long and getting burned doesn’t automatically mean that you have skin cancer, however, studies have shown that getting a sunburn at least five times in your life doubles your risk for someday being diagnosed with melanoma.
While it’s not talked about as often as breast cancer, for example, melanoma affects close to 90,000 people annually, with about 25% of the cases diagnosed in people under the age of 45.
So does this mean that you can’t ever go outside again and have to swear off indoor tanning for good? Not necessarily, but 90% of melanoma cases are linked to these two UV sources.
Is Sunscreen Your Best Bet?
While it’s not the only way to protect your skin, it should be your first line of defense. The danger of ultraviolet light on our skin isn’t just that we get a sunburn and some discomfort for a few days; rather, people can develop skin cancer easily and at any age. Doctors say that you need a SPF of at least 30 to protect you from skin cancer.
Sunscreens employ UV filters – molecules designed to reduce the amount of UV rays that reach your skin – that form a protective barrier to either absorb or reflect the UV photons before they’re absorbed by our DNA.
It takes about one ounce of sunscreen to cover the exposed areas on the body and a nickel sized amount for the face and neck. Most people apply only half of the recommended amount of sunscreen, increasing their risk for sun damage. Sunscreen efficacy can also decrease in the water or with sweating, so the rule of thumb is to reapply every two hours or so. It’s important to put sunscreen on cloudy days as well, as clouds only protect you from 20% of the sun’s harmful rays.
A typical story is just like the experience of Gretchen Hoechner, who didn’t use sunscreen very often as a child. As she grew into her teens, her doctor expressed concern over her various irregular moles, so she started using sunblock when she went swimming. However, it wasn’t enough and by age 24 a biopsy revealed precancerous cells on her shoulder.
Even this scare didn’t sink in enough, and Gretchen continued to be relaxed when it came to sun exposure. Only two years later did she find out news that would change her life: she was diagnosed with melanoma. Her skin cancer was caught early enough, and she has since committed to treating her skin with care.
Other Ways To Protect Your Skin
Regular use of sunscreen isn’t the only way you can prevent harmful UVA and UVB rays from damaging your skin. Keep in mind some of these other important tips before heading outside:
- Use an appropriate sunscreen for your skin type. The more fair you are, the higher of an SPF you should use
- The sun is most intense between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm, so limit your exposure during those peak times as best as you can
- If you’re particularly sensitive to the sun or have previously had melanoma, think about utilizing sun-safe clothing as an extra layer of protection
- Wear hats that offer a lot of coverage and sunglasses that block UV, as the skin around our eyes is very sensitive
Melanoma is very serious and can be fatal if not diagnosed early enough, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t enjoy outdoor activities or have to cover yourself from head to toe in the middle of summer. Sometimes just knowing how sensitive your skin is can be enough to implement simple precautions that end up keeping you healthy and safe.