By Kevin Ronneberg, M.D.
The dog days of summer are here, and it’s critical for beachgoers and outdoor fun-seekers to be sun-safe. This begins with choosing the right sunscreen to protect yourself from harmful UV rays. Equally important are these five simple tips from the Skin Cancer Foundation, which also will help you mitigate sun damage and reduce the risk of skin cancer.
First, seek the shade. Simply minimizing exposure to UVA and UVB rays can go a long way toward protecting your skin. Taking a break from direct sun is especially important between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when rays are strongest. And remember, clouds don’t block UV rays. Infants under 6 months should always be kept out of the sun and protected with clothing, an umbrella or a stroller hood. Children and adults should wear protective clothing, including wide-brimmed hats and UV-blocking sunglasses.
Second, use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher. Regardless of the season, this kind of sun protection should be used on a daily basis. Most people understand the importance of sun safety during the summer months, but many underestimate the need for year-round protection. The temperature may drop, but UV rays remains strong. And the cooler temperatures may actually prevent people from realizing the extent of the damage the sun is doing to their skin. Next year, new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration will help consumers know they’re getting the right protection by prohibiting manufactures from labeling their sunscreens as “broad spectrum” or making claims about protecting against skin cancer and aging unless they’re SPF 15 or higher. And sunscreens with lower SPF values will have to sport a warning that the product may not offer protection against the harmful effects of exposure to the sun.
Third, apply 1 ounce of sunscreen to the entire body 30 minutes before going outside. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, for full SPF protection, sunscreen must be applied half an hour before sun exposure. If you are average size, you’ll need a full ounce—about two tablespoons—to adequately cover your skin. Studies show that most people apply less than half that amount, losing the full benefit of the SPF protection. Reapplication is just as important as putting sunscreen on in the first place, as sunscreens tend to break down with exposure and can be rubbed off or washed off by sweat or water. So sunscreen should be applied every two hours, and immediately after swimming or a set of tennis. During a full day at the beach, one person should expect to use at least a quarter of an 8 oz. bottle of sunscreen.
Fourth, do not let yourself burn. Sunburn is the most immediate and obvious sign of UV damage. When immune cells race to the injured skin site to start healing the damage, they produce the reddening and swelling. Tanning is the skin’s response to this damage and may permanently affect skin cells. While many believe a “base tan” will prevent damaging burns, that’s not the case. There is no such thing as a healthy or base tan.
Finally, check your skin regularly and ask your doctor for a skin cancer exam annually. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer. Tans and burns can be the first step. Intermittent but intense UV exposure is more closely associated with melanoma, the most deadly variety of skin cancer, than chronic sun exposure. One blistering sunburn in childhood or five in a lifetime doubles the risk of melanoma. To check yourself for signs of skin damage, inspect your skin from head to toe, looking for spots or sores that heal too slowly, new growths, and any moles or beauty marks that change in color, texture, or size. And once each year, be sure to ask your physician for a skin checkup.
Sunscreens are an essential part of a healthy lifestyle. They keep skin looking young and reduce the risk of many skin cancers. They must be used properly, however. These five suggestions will help keep you and your skin safe.
Dr. Kevin Ronneberg is the associate medical director at Target.