June - Sun Protection
Beverly Miller, MHA, MBA, Acting Area Director
Indian Health Service California Area Office
Summer is upon us! It’s great to spend time outdoors when the sun is shining and the weather is warm. However, the sun is also a source of intense ultraviolent (UV) radiation, which can be harmful. So when we spend time outdoors, we need to remember to take steps to protect ourselves and our families.
The sun’s rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. People who get a lot of exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays because they work or spend a lot of time outdoors, even if it is just on the weekends, have a greater risk for skin cancer. UV rays can also cause eye damage. Studies show that exposure to bright sunlight may increase the risk of developing cataracts and macular degeneration, leading causes of vision loss among older adults, and can damage the eye’s cornea.
UV rays are their most intense in the late spring and summer months in North America, and are stronger at higher altitudes. Clouds can partially block UV rays, but can also reflect and increase them. So even if the day is cloudy, you need to protect yourself. Avoid being out in the sun as much as possible from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m, when the sun is at its brightest. Also, remember that the sun’s rays can bounce off sand, concrete, and water, so protect yourself even if you’re in the shade.
What’s the best way to protect yourself from UV radiation?
Sunglasses are the best way to protect your eyes and the skin around them from UV rays. Most sunglasses sold in the United States block UVA and UVB rays (the two types that come from the sun), but check the label to make sure. Labels that say “meets ANSI UV Requirements” mean the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays, while those labeled “cosmetic” block only 70% of UV rays. Darker glasses are not necessarily better, because the protection comes from a chemical in or on the glasses, not the darkness of the lenses. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they block UV rays from the side.
A hat that has a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears, and the back of your neck is the best. Avoid straw hats with holes that let sunlight through. If you wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck. A dark, non-reflective underside to the brim can also help lower the amount of UV rays reaching your face from reflective surfaces such as water. A shade cap (which looks like a baseball cap with fabric draping down the sides and back) can provide more protection for the neck.
When weather permits, long-sleeved shirts and long pants and skirts provide protection against UV rays, especially if they’re made from tightly woven fabric. A wet T-shirt offers much less UV protection than a dry one, and lighter colors have less protection than darker ones. A typical T-shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15, so don’t rely on it for sun protection. If you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through, too.
Because people tend to wear fewer clothes in hot weather, sunscreen plays an important role in protecting the skin against UV rays. Sunscreen has chemicals that interact with the skin to absorb, reflect, or scatter sunlight. You should put on sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you go outside, even on cloudy or cool days. Use at least 1 ounce, and don’t forget to use it on all exposed skin, including your scalp if you have thin hair and aren’t wearing a hat. Reapply it if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating, or toweling off. Always check the expiration date on sunscreen to be sure it’s still effective. Most sunscreen products are good for at least 2 to 3 years. Sunscreens that have been exposed to heat for long periods, e.g. kept in a glove box or car trunk through the summer, may be less effective.
Sunscreens have a sun protection factor (SPF) number that reflects their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. 1 hour in the sun wearing SPF 30 sunscreen is the same as spending 2 minutes in the sun totally unprotected. However, people often do not apply enough sunscreen, so they don’t always get the maximum protection. You should use a broad spectrum sunscreen (which protects against UVA and UVB rays) with an SPF of at least 15; if your skin burns easily, use SPF 30 or higher. Sunscreen is labeled “broad spectrum” if it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Some of the chemicals in sunscreens that help protect against UVA rays include avobenzone, zinc oxide, and titanium dioxide. Not all sunscreens have the same ingredients, so if one type bothers your skin, try a different one. However, no sunscreen protects you completely from UV rays. Even with proper sunscreen use, some UV rays get through, which is why using other forms of sun protection is also important.
Some people need extra protection
Infants under the age of 6 months cannot wear sunscreen and should be protected from the sun using hats and protective clothing, and kept out of direct sunlight. Children over the age of 6 months tend to spend more time outdoors than adults and can burn more easily. They should have sunscreen on whenever will be exposed to a lot of sunlight, and should wear sunglasses and hats to protect their eyes and face. Kids will often complain about having to wear hats, sunglasses, or sunscreen, but it’s very important to protect their skin and eyes from UV damage from an early age.
Other people need to take special care as well. Anyone with a family or personal history of skin cancer, especially melanoma, or anyone with many irregular or large moles need to be especially careful, as do people who have freckles and burn easily, or who have fair skin, hair, or eyes. People with lupus or any medical condition that weakens the immune system, or who has had an organ transplant, or who is on medicines to lower or suppress the immune system, or that make your skin more sensitive to sunlight, also need to take extra precautions against UV radiation. Also, if you live or work at a higher altitude, remember that you are getting a higher dose of UV radiation.
For more information:
American Cancer Association: http://www.cancer.org/healthy/besafeinthesun/
Centers for Disease Control: http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/sun-safety.htm