Sunshine on your shoulders may make you happy, but it can also give you a sunburn. And did you know that it can bring other risks that go beyond sunburn? Even though sunlight is essential for all life on Earth, repeated exposure to the sun is a major factor in long-term skin damage.
Sunlight is composed of two types of ultraviolet light, UVB (short wavelengths) and UVA (long wavelengths). Too much exposure to either kind of ultraviolet rays leads to wrinkling and premature aging of your skin, and it can also cause skin cancer. Sun-induced skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Sun damage is cumulative-that means it keeps adding up over your lifetime. Even so, the harmful effects of sun exposure are largely preventable. You should begin protecting yourself from the sun at an early age to help ensure healthy skin throughout your life.
Skin damage does not occur only on the beach or the ski slopes. Even casual exposure to sunlight – while driving a car, going for a walk, taking an outdoor lunch break – contributes to the cumulative lifetime exposure that may lead to skin damage. Schools, child care centers, camps, and sports leagues would be wise to rearrange outdoor play times to minimize children’s exposure to the midday sun.
Most of us spend a lot of time in the sun. We enjoy many recreational activities such as swimming, boating, golfing, and gardening. Construction crews and landscapers work outdoors all day long. While you may be used to warnings about limiting sun exposure and using sunscreens, you can never be too cautious about how much sun is good for you. Fair-skinned, light-haired people are the most sun-sensitive, while dark-haired, darker-skinned people have more pigmentation to serve as natural protection. No one is immune from skin damage, however.
Many people don’t realize that a tan is actually a sign of skin damage. The tanning process is the skin’s attempt to defend itself against further injury. When skin cells sense that they are receiving too many UV rays, they begin producing a dark pigment called melanin to try and block the incoming rays. The deeper the color of the tan, the more overexposed the skin has been. Although a tan may help prevent sunburning, it will not protect you against wrinkling or skin cancer.
Staying indoors is the only guaranteed protection against getting sun-damaged skin. While such a drastic precaution is unrealistic and unhealthy for other reasons, you should at least limit your time spent in the sun. The hours between 10:00 am and 3:00 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest, are the worst times to be outside. Seek shade whenever you can. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing made of tightly woven cotton fabric. Desert-dwelling nomads have long known that covering up their bodies provides the best sun protection.
Use the maximum protection sunscreens on exposed areas to help reduce the risk of skin damage from sunlight. Make sure that your shoulders, the back of your neck, hands, and the tops of your feet and ears are covered, and don’t forget the part in your hair at the top of your head. Use a lip balm with sunscreen for your lips. Any time you are going to be out in the sun for more than ten minutes, you will benefit from the use of sunscreen. Be extra careful on cloudy days, because you will tend to stay out longer and can get sunburned without realizing it, since up to 80% of UVA and UVB radiation passes through the clouds.
The SPF (sun protection factor) of sunscreens gives you an idea of how long you can remain in the sun before burning. Most people benefit from sunscreens with an SPF of at least 15. For example, if you would normally burn in 10 minutes without sunscreen, applying an SPF 15 sunscreen may provide you with about 150 minutes of protection before burning, although that’s only an estimate.
While no sunscreen can completely protect you, sunscreens with SPF numbers greater than 15 may further benefit those who are fair-skinned, live in climates close to the equator or at high altitudes, and work or play outdoors. Swimming and perspiration, however, will reduce the actual SPF value of many sunscreens. In such cases, a waterproof brand is recommended, and it should be reapplied often for the best protection.
Sunscreen should be applied about 30 minutes before going out in the sun, to allow time for it to be fully absorbed into the skin and the protective action to begin. Moreover, you must liberally apply the recommended amount on your skin or you will not get the full protection offered by the sunscreen. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 may give only half that protection if you do not use enough of it. If you are at the beach, for example, use about an ounce of sunscreen over your whole body for one application. This means you should plan to buy about one 8-ounce container or more of sunscreen per person for each week you are at the beach.
Although virtually all sunscreens will provide some level of protection against UVB rays, no product can screen out all UVA rays. Even in sunscreens with high SPF numbers that advertise UVA protection, researchers estimate that the actual level of UVA protection is probably only equivalent to an SPF 3 or 4. So even if you use high SPF sunscreens you are still vulnerable to skin damage from the sun’s UVA rays. This is why it’s always best to avoid long exposures of your skin to the sun, whether you’re wearing sunscreen or not.
Don’t be misled by sunscreen products that claim they are sunblocks. Only physically opaque substances, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, will totally block sunlight from reaching your skin. This type of product is most practical to use on small areas of the body most exposed to the sun, such as the nose and lips.
As a general rule, it’s best to replace last season’s sunscreen. Some sunscreens have expiration dates on the package, and all will continue to provide some protection for several years. However, prolonged exposure to heat (such as in a hot car) or cold temperatures can significantly reduce their effectiveness, regardless of the expiration date.
Eye protection is just as important as skin protection. That’s because long-term exposure to bright sunlight can cause damage to the eyes, such as cataracts, cornea burns, and other eye disorders. Buy good-quality sunglasses with a coating that blocks out UVA and UVB light, which should be clearly stated on the label. Beware of inexpensive dark sunglasses that do not filter UV rays. These cheap sunglasses can actually do more harm than good, because the pupils dilate behind the dark lenses, thus allowing more UV rays to enter the eyes. The color of the lenses isn’t important – what matters is the wavelength of light being blocked.
If you are taking any medications, ask your doctor or pharmacist if these medications will sensitize your skin to the sun. Common drugs that do this include: certain antibiotics, diuretics, antihistamines, and antidepressants.
Because sunscreens may irritate babies’ sensitive skin, and babies’ developing eyes are particularly vulnerable to sunlight, experts recommend that infants less than six months old should be kept out of the sun completely.
Indoor tanning devices emit ultraviolet rays just like natural sunlight. These UVA and UVB rays will cause the same amount of skin damage whether they come from artificial or natural sources.
TRUE OR FALSE?
1. About 50% of an individual’s sun exposure occurs by age 18.
2. UV radiation increases 5% for every 1,000-foot gain in elevation.
3. Snow reflects 80% of the sun’s rays, while beach sand reflects 15%.
4. The sun’s rays can reach through three feet of water.
5. Sunlight coming through a window or windshield can damage your skin.
6. Small daily doses of UVA rays can cause long-term injury to your skin, even without any sunburn.
7. Dermatologists agree that there is no such thing as a “healthy tan.”
8. Children and adolescents who experience a single blistering sunburn are twice as likely to develop skin cancer later in life.
9. A sun-sensitive person can get a minor sunburn in approximately five minutes on a sunny midday in June.
10. Arizona has the highest rate of skin cancer among the fifty states and one of the highest rates in the world.
(Even if you are being more careful than ever about your exposure to the sun, you may be surprised at the answers to some of the above questions. All of them are true!)
Did You Know…? Our culture’s tanning infatuation is a modern phenomenon. Being pale used to be a sign of wealth, because only peasants who labored outdoors were bronzed by the sun.
For more sun facts, myths, and tips, see “It’s Cool in the Shade.”