Sun safety is never out of season. With summer rapidly approaching, that means it’s time for picnics, trips to the pool and beach… and a spike in the number of sunburns.
However, winter skiers and fall hikers should be wary of the sun’s rays just as much as swimmers! People who work outdoors should be taking extra precautions, too.
Sunscreens are products combining several ingredients that help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin. Two types of UV radiation, UVA and UVB, damage the skin, age it prematurely, and increase your risk of skin cancer.
UVB is the chief culprit behind sunburn, while UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply, are associated with wrinkling, leathering, sagging and other light-induced effects of aging (photoaging). They also exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of UVB rays and increasingly are being seen as a cause of skin cancer on their own. Sunscreens vary in their ability to protect against UVA and UVB.
What is SPF?
Most sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher do an excellent job of protecting against UVB. SPF – or Sun Protection Factor – is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin. So, here’s how it works: If it takes 20 minutes for your unprotected skin to start turning red, using an SPF 15 sunscreen theoretically prevents reddening 15 times longer – about five hours.
Another way to look at it is in terms of percentages: SPF 15 filters out approximately 93 percent of all incoming UVB rays. SPF 30 keeps out 97 percent and SPF 50 keeps out 98%. They may seem like negligible differences, but if you are light-sensitive, or have a history of skin cancer, those extra percentages will make a huge difference. And, as you can see, no sunscreen can block all UV rays.
But, there are problems with the SPF model: First, no sunscreen, regardless of strength, should be expected to stay effective longer than two hours without reapplication. Second, “reddening” of the skin is a reaction to UVB rays alone and tells you little about what UVA damage you might be getting. Plenty of damage can be done without the red flag of sunburn being raised.
Whatever our skin color, we’re all potentially susceptible to sunburn and other harmful effects of exposure to UV radiation. Although we all need to take precautions to protect our skin, people who need to be especially careful int he sun are those who have:
- Pale skin
- Blonde, red, or light brown hair
- Treated for skin cancer in the past
- A family member who’s had skin cancer
Reduce Time in the Sun
It’s important to limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. Even on an overcast day, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds. Stay in the shade as much as possible throughout the day.
Dress with Care
Wear clothes that protect your body. If you plan on being outside on a sunny day, cover as much of your body as possible. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves and pants. Sun-protective clothing is now available. However, the FDA only regulates such products if the manufacturer intends to make a medical claim. Consider using an umbrella for shade.
Be Serious about Sunscreen
Check product labels to make sure you get:
- An SPF of 15 or higher.
- Broad spectrum protection – sunscreen that protects against all types of skin damage caused by sunlight.
- Water resistance – sunscreen that stays on your skin longer, even if it gets wet. Reapply water-resistant sunscreens as instructed on the label.