Skin Safety Tips for the Summer Sun

As the summer sun is just around the corner, so are all the risks that come along with its brilliant yet dangerous rays. As schools let out for the summer and the beaches become populated with thousands of sun seekers, the sun has the opportunity to not only burn us, but to also accelerate our aging process and induce cancer. In fact, exposure to the sun, otherwise known as solar radiation, is considered a Group 1 carcinogen. What does this mean? This means that the sun and its radiation are included on a list of agents such as benzene, cigarette smoke, vinyl chloride, plutonium, and about 100 other agents that are KNOWN to induce cancer in humans. And yet we still see beachgoers rubbing on tanning oil, basking in the sun, and even frequenting tanning booths.

It was once perceived that rosy red cheeks and a “healthy” tan were indicators of vitality and health. Pale individuals were often questioned if they were sick or housebound, but ironically, these fair or pale skinned individuals were actually more healthy in terms of skin health than their tan counterparts. Remember, any change in color from your natural skin tone isn’t just a tan, it’s damage. Even if you do not burn, the alteration in color can induce cellular damage which leads to not only premature aging but also skin cancer.

We all have a natural “built in” SPF, or skin protective factor. This means the amount of time we can be exposed to the sun before we burn. For example, I myself am extremely fair complected. I can be in the sun only a short five minutes before I can feel myself burning. This would mean I have a natural SPF of 5! People that can spend an hour in the sun before burning would have an SPF of 60. But remember… this number can change depending on the time of day and how close to the equator you are and even how high your altitude is. From the hours of 10 am to 2 pm the sun is the most intense and therefore can burn you much quicker. If you happen to be vacationing in St. Martin vs the outer banks of North Carolina, the sun will be more intense because of the proximity to the equator.

One hidden fact that most people forget is that even in the bitter winter while on a ski vacation, or enjoying hot chocolate on a snowy mountain side that you not only get the direct rays of sun from high altitude but you also get the reflective rays off the snow that bounce back at >60 percent the intensity of direct rays. This rule holds the same for water. Being out on a boat or lounging on a pool float can induce burns from both the direct rays and the reflective rays. Remember that these reflective rays can escape the brim of a hat and can also potentially slip the opposite way from under an umbrella.

Sun Smart Safety Tips

So how can we protect ourselves from this dangerous Group 1 carcinogen? Other than completely staying indoors with shaded windows or only venturing out after sundown, what can we do to provide the ultimate protection from solar radiation? The answer is that we have to hide in plain sight. We have to camouflage ourselves from the sun in hopes of diverting the damaging rays away from our vulnerable skin. One of the best things we can do for our skin is to apply sunscreen and lots of it. As mentioned above, sunscreen also uses SPF as its measuring tool against the sun. 

Sunscreens can range from SPF 2 to 100! Remember that the number relates to the amount of time you can spend in the sun without burning. SPF 100 means you can basically stay in the sun approximately 100 minutes before solar radiation. SPF 15 means only about 15 minutes in the sun before experiencing some exposure to solar radiation. And remember that this number can be altered with altitude, proximity to the equator and time of day. Both sweat and water can affect the effectiveness as well. It is also important to remember that the sun had 2 types of rays, UVA and UVB. Both are harmful and you need to choose a sunscreen that reads “broad spectrum” which means protection against UVA and UVB.

Here is a good rule of thumb that keeps it simple when choosing sunscreen. Use a sunscreen that is >SPF 50, is broad spectrum and is something easy for you to put on! There are creams, gels, sprays, spritz, paste, and lotions and all work the same if applied correctly. I myself prefer the sprays on the body and oil free gels on the face, but you can pick any combination that works for you. And it’s important to apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes prior to going into the sun to allow for proper absorption. Reapply sunscreen after excessive sweating or going into the water. Also, it’s important to remember the all-important lips, outer ears and eyes. To protect the lips use protective lip balm SPF>20 and apply hourly. Wear sunglasses with polarized lenses at all times and never look directly at the sun. Wearing a large brimmed hat is never a bad idea and if possible, try to sit under an umbrella or in the shade.

Nowadays it’s more fashionable than ever to be sun savvy. There are now entire clothing lines devoted to attire with SPF, most being >50. These protective layers are great for boating, fishing, diving, and jobs that require long hours in the sun. I Still apply sunscreen underneath these layers as an added layer of protection and in case I decide to remove the top layer in the heat.

Treating Sun Damage

So all of the above mentioned things are ways to prevent solar radiation, but what if you have already had solar radiation exposure or sun damage? Remember that awful blistering, peeling, tiny water bubbling sun burn you got as a teenager? Or how about that time at the beach you “fried” your nose and shoulders after you forgot to re-apply sunscreen? Yes, all of that was definitely heavy exposure with damage to the skin but now more than ever we have better treatments and surveillance for the damage done to our skin earlier in life.

The best way to know the extent of your solar sun damage is to see a dermatologist. Those little brown spots on the face or body aren’t just “old age spots”. Those can also be a result of sun damage and long term exposure to solar radiation. If you have had a blistering sunburn at least once in your life I always recommend a trip to the dermatologist to get a thorough skin check. A dermatologist will look over the entire body, including the scalp and between the toes, looking for anything suspicious. Of course we all hear about the deadly melanoma, but we also have to worry about squamous and basal cell carcinomas. These skin cancers, although less lethal, are disfiguring and can cause ulceration and scaling of the skin. A dermatologist will be able to determine if little areas need a biopsy or can simply be frozen or shaved off. There is also incredible new technology such as blue light which is a procedure where the skin in “painted” with medication that is taken up in abnormal cells and once a “blue light” hits the abnormal cell with medication it reacts with the light and begins to shed itself. Patients are left with less sun damage and fresh new skin underneath. Blue light helps correct sun damage acquired in patients younger years.

Be On The Lookout

No sun and skin safety discussion is complete without the discussion of melanoma. In the US, one person is diagnosed with melanoma every eight minutes; it is the most lethal of the skin cancers. Melanoma spreads quickly, earlier and is much more aggressive than any other skin cancer. One in 50 Americans will develop melanoma in their lifetime and it is the fastest growing cancer in the US and worldwide. Melanoma also kills a much younger population. It is the second most common of all cancers in men and women ages 15 – 29. Risk factors for melanoma include fair complexion, family history, severe sunburns as a child, and using a tanning bed ten times a year or more before age 30. Discuss your risk factors with a surgical oncologist.

If caught in the earliest stages, melanoma is treatable by a surgical oncologist, but because it spreads quickly, early detection and immediate treatment is essential. Melanoma often starts out as a mole and can be removed if caught early. But because moles are often mistaken for beauty marks, they go unnoticed. Have a dermatologist look at anything abnormal on your skin. Remember the ABCDE rule of Melanoma:

Asymmetry: one half of the mole doesn’t match the other
Border: irregular border
Color: change in color or different colors in same mole
Diameter: greater than 6 mm (about the size of a pencil eraser)
Evolving: size, shape or color

If you notice any of the ABCDE changes in a mole, see a dermatologist as soon as possible.

So now that we have been through skin and sun safety from A to Z you are well armed for the summer sunshine. Remember the sun that we get today may seem like a gorgeous tan, but tomorrow it will mean skin damage, premature aging and even skin cancer.