“It’s time we rethink our position on the standards of beauty. Tan really is not beautiful; it is a walking advertisement for skin cancer.” ~Susan Evans, MD
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. Although a tan may help prevent sunburning, it will not protect you against wrinkles or skin cancer.
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, which 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.
You can never be too cautious about how much sun is good for you. 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 eventually 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.
Fair-skinned, light-haired people are the most sun-sensitive, while dark-haired, darker-skinned people have more pigmentation to serve as natural protection. However, no one is immune from skin damage. The tanning process is actually 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.
The hours between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest, are the worst times to be outside. Avoid the sun during that time by staying indoors or in the shade. If you must go out in the sun, wear a wide-brimmed hat, lightweight pants, and long-sleeve shirt made of tightly woven cotton fabric. (Hold clothing up to the light; if you can see through it, the UV rays can get through, too.) Desert-dwelling nomads have long known that covering up their bodies provides the best sun protection. Dress modestly, and this will provide the added benefit of protecting you from the sun.
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 and 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. 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. While no sunscreen can completely protect you, SPF 30 is the minimum level recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. Sunscreens with SPF numbers greater than 30 will benefit those who are fair-skinned, live in climates close to the equator or at high altitudes, and work or play outdoors.
Sunscreen should be applied about 15-30 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. 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.
Although virtually all sunscreens will provide some level of protection against UVB rays, no product can screen out all UVA rays. 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.
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 excessive heat (such as in a hot car) can significantly reduce a sunscreen’s effectiveness, regardless of the expiration date.
Types of Sunscreens
The active ingredients of sunscreens come in two categories: chemical absorbers and mineral sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the energy of UV rays and converting it to heat that is dispersed in the skin. Mineral sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) work by reflecting UV rays from the surface of the skin. Studies suggest that many chemical sunscreens may be absorbed into the skin, and thus make their way into the bloodstream, while mineral sunscreens like zinc oxide do 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 with the greatest exposure to the sun, such as the nose and lips. You often see high-altitude climbers with white noses, because zinc provides the best protection.
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 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 those 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.
Teens are at special risk because their bodies are undergoing such accelerated growth rates that their cells are more prone to the damage of the UV radiation. By routinely tanning their skin starting at a young age, teens put themselves at greater lifetime risk of developing skin cancer.
TRUE OR FALSE…?
- About 50% of an individual’s sun exposure occurs by age 18.
- UV radiation increases 5% for every 1,000-foot gain in elevation.
- Snow reflects 80% of the sun’s rays, and beach sand reflects 15%.
- The sun’s rays can not only shine through a glass window or windshield, they can also reach through three feet of water.
- Any time you are going to be out in the sun for more than ten minutes, you will benefit from the use of sunscreen.
- Dermatologists agree that there is no such thing as a “healthy tan.” Base tans protect you from sunburn, but not sun damage.
- For most people, just 5-10 minutes of unprotected sun 2-3 times a week is enough to help your skin make Vitamin D, which is essential for your health. Getting more sun won’t increase your Vitamin D level.
- Your risk of developing skin cancer later in life increases after just one blistering sunburn.
- A sun-sensitive person can get a sunburn in approximately five minutes on a sunny midday in June.
- Indoor tanning booths are far more risky than outdoor sun exposure because they emit up to 15 times more UV radiation than the sun.
- Casual exposure to sunlight such as going for a walk or taking an outdoor lunch break without sunscreen contributes to the cumulative lifetime exposure that may lead to skin damage.
- Research shows that people who rely on sunscreens alone tend to burn more than those who stay in the shade and wear long sleeves.
(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…?
The “Valley of the Sun” around Phoenix, Arizona, is noted for its average of 350 clear sunny days per year. Consequently, Arizona has the highest rate of skin cancer among the fifty states and one of the highest rates in the world.