Contributor: Josette Snyder, RN, MSN, AOCN
One of the reasons we all look forward to the balmier months of spring is the ability to enjoy the sun once again. Sunshine warms us and makes us feel relaxed and happy.
But, as we all know, the sun’s rays can be harmful as well. Sunlight contains ultraviolet radiation, which is capable of causing cancer.
Each year, more than 1 million people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the country.
You don’t have become a hermit and hide from sunlight. But be smart about exposing your skin to the sun’s damaging rays. Here are steps you can take to reduce your risk of skin damage from the sun – and skin cancer:
Sunscreen is an important part of sun protection. Look for a product that provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and is broad spectrum, which means it protects you from both UVA and UVB rays.
About 30 minutes before you go outside, apply a thick coating – about the amount in a shot glass – and be sure to reapply frequently, because all sunscreens break down in the sun after two to three hours. If you go in the water, reapply sunscreen after you dry off, even if it’s a water-resistant sunscreen.
Stay in the shade
Avoid the sun’s rays, especially during the midday hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun is highest and its rays are most direct. The time to seek shade under an umbrella, tree, or other protection is before you need relief from the sun. So if you’re in sunlight, keep an eye out for your skin turning pink or becoming sensitive.
UV rays still can reach you in the shade when you’re outside, so you still need to use sunscreen or wear protective clothing.
Cover your arms and legs
Long-sleeved shirts and long pants and skirts can protect you from UV rays. Although light-colored, loosely woven clothing is popular during the warm months, you may be surprised to learn that garments that are dark-colored or made from tightly woven fabric give more protection against the sun. The tightly woven fabric physically blocks the sun’s rays, while the dark color absorbs them. Also, wet clothing offers much less UV protection than dry.
A typical T-shirt has a SPF rating lower than 15, so don’t rely solely on clothing – use other types of protection as well, such as sunscreen.
Several companies sell clothing with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF), a sun protective factor built into the clothing, which includes swimwear, T-shirts and hats.
Wear a hat
Choose one with a wide brim that goes all the way around your head to shade your face, ears and neck. A tightly woven fabric, such as canvas, is best, and a darker hat may offer more UV protection.
Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through. If you wear a baseball cap, protect your ears and the back of your neck by wearing clothing that covers those areas, use a sunscreen with at an SPF of at least 30, or stay in the shade.
Sunglasses not only protect your eyes from UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts, but they also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure.
When you’re shopping for sunglasses, look for lenses that block UV rays. Most sunglasses sold in the United States, regardless of cost, meet this standard. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they block UV rays that can come in from the side.
Do not use tanning beds
Tanning beds are like cigarettes: use them and you are flirting with developing cancer. Tanning beds can cause skin cancers, including melanoma – the deadliest type of skin cancer.
People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma. Even occasional sunbed use almost triples your chances of developing melanoma. Young people – including teenagers – are especially sensitive to the UV rays that tanning beds emit.
Need any more reasons to avoid tanning beds? Exposure to UV radiation that these devices emit also can cause cataracts and cancers of the eye. There’s no good reason to lie in a tanning bed.
If you like the look of a tan, try sunless tanners or bronzers, which are cosmetics applied to the skin like a cream and can provide a temporary, artificial tan. The only color additive currently approved by FDA for this purpose is dihydroxyacetone (DHA).
Not all sunless tanners or bronzers provide protection against the sun. Read the labels to find out if they do.