The summer solstice takes place on Saturday marking the start of summer. This means more hot days ahead, and if you are someone that loves spending the summer months outdoors, then you know how important it is to wear sunscreen and protect yourself from the sun’s rays.
Did you know that more people are diagnosed with skin cancer each year in the United States than all other cancers combined?
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop this type of cancer by the age of 70.
In the U.S., more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, while more than two people die from it every hour. That all sounds pretty bleak, but something to note is that across all stages of melanoma, the average five-year survival rate in the U.S. is 92 percent, and the five-year survival rate in patients whose melanoma is detected early is about 99 percent.
Common forms of skin cancer are usually curable, and you can significantly limit your risk by taking the necessary precautions to protect yourself, especially during the hot summer months.
Let’s start with the basics of ultraviolet radiation and how it can damage the skin. UV radiation is a form of energy that comes from the sun. UV light is split into three types — UVA, UVB, and UVC.
UVC rays are harmless, because they are the shortest wavelength and do not reach us here on earth. UVB rays cause changes to the skin’s surface such as tanning and sunburns. UVB rays can burn the skin any time, but there is a higher chance for those that live closer to the equator, at higher altitudes, or when the rays reflect off of surfaces such as ocean water, sand, or even pavement.
UVA rays are the longest wavelength that cause changes deeper in the skin layers, such as aging and wrinkling. Either way, both UVA and UVB exposure cause damage to the body, and therefore contribute to a higher risk of developing skin cancer.
Let’s talk about what a sunburn actually is.
A sunburn is the skin’s reaction to too much UV light exposure. Melanin is the pigment in the outer layers of the skin that gives us our natural color. When exposed to UV light, our bodies work overtime to produce more melanin, creating a darker tint to the skin, known as a tan. The tan is the body’s natural defense mechanism to prevent deeper skin damage from the sun’s rays. That protective barrier only works for so long, though. Prolonged UV light exposure will cause the skin to eventually burn, leading to pain and redness. Some people can burn in as quickly as 10 to 15 minutes.
A sunburn is not always immediately noticeable. Most symptoms do not show up until hours after sun exposure and do not peak until 12 to 36 hours. From there, the skin may also begin to peel, which is the body’s way of beginning the healing process and shedding the layer of damaged skin cells. Avoid peeling the skin yourself and let it come off naturally. Most sunburns will heal in about a week.
Let’s imagine you get a sunburn — what are some of the steps you can take to help during the treatment phase. Unfortunately, there is no quick cure for a sunburn or anything you can do after the fact to minimize the damage done. However, there are ways to help combat the uncomfortable symptoms:
- Take cool baths or use cool compresses
- Use aloe vera gel, a topical moisturizer, or a low-dose hydrocortisone cream
- Over-the-counter medicines such as aspirin, acetaminophen, or ibuprofen can help treat pain and swelling
- Drink plenty of water to replace the loss of fluids and prevent further dehydration
- Stay out of the sun until the burn is completely healed
It’s crucial to begin these steps as soon as you notice the sunburn. If the sunburn is severe enough, you may even develop flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, and headache. If you develop a high fever and other uncommon symptoms, that is a sign to contact your doctor. The best thing you can do for a sunburn is simply give it time to heal.
Now let’s talk about prevention and how you can protect yourself from developing sunburns and potentially skin cancer down the road. The first step is to wear sunscreen, with an SPF of 30 or higher, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. They also recommend choosing a broad spectrum sunscreen, meaning it protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays, and a sunscreen that is also water resistant for up to 40 or 80 minutes. Apply 15 to 30 minutes before heading outdoors and remember to reapply every two hours or after swimming/sweating. The AAD says to “apply enough sunscreen to cover all skin that clothing will not cover. Most adults need about one once, or enough to fill a shot glass, to fully cover their body.” You can even develop a sunburn or skin cancer on your lips, so wearing a lip balm with SPF 30 or above can also make a difference.
You may be asking, why SPF 30 — wouldn’t SPF 50 or 70 be better? Dermatologists recommend at least SPF 30, since it blocks 97-percent of the sun’s UVB rays. The Skin Cancer Foundation states that “products with a very high SPF often create a false sense of security and people who use them tend to stay out in the sun much longer. They may skip reapplying, and end up getting a lot more UV damage, which, of course, defeats the purpose.” The AAD also wants you to keep in mind that “no sunscreen can block 100-percent of the sun’s UVB rays,” but any sunscreen is better than none at all.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends that you “check the sunscreen labels for directions on storing and expirations dates. Throw sunscreen away if it’s expired or more than three years old.” It is important to know that sunscreen will become less effective over time. For information on how to properly apply different forms of sunscreen, visit the AAD’s website to watch a video demonstration.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, “there is no such thing as a safe or healthy tan.”
A tan is the first sign of skin damage before a burn. No matter your skin type or complexion, everyone needs protection from UV rays. People with naturally darker skin are less likely to get sunburned compared to those with lighter skin, but that does not mean you will never burn if you have dark skin. All skin types are susceptible to painful sunburns, and that is why everyone should use sunscreen.
Another misconception is that you only need to wear sunscreen during the sunny days of summer. UV rays are actually dangerous all year long as long as it is light outside, even on cloudy days. “Even on cloudy days, up to 80-percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can penetrate your skin,” according to the AAD. You can even burn in the shade, such as under a beach umbrella. Even though you cannot see or feel the harmful UV rays, it can reflect off objects and surfaces all around you and still affect your skin.
You may be doing everything right by taking the necessary steps to prevent skin damage, and yet you still end up with a sunburn after only being outside for a short time. Why is that? This could be due to a medical condition you have or medications you are taking that make you more sensitive to the sun. “Lupus, dermatomyositis, and porphyria are among the diseases that can increase your skin’s sensitivity to light,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Other items that cause sun sensitivity include certain oral and topical medicines like acne treatments, birth control pills, antihistamines, antibiotics, antifungals, diuretics, chemotherapy drugs, and heart medications. In this case, it is extra important to avoid sun exposure or choose a higher SPF sunscreen and stay vigilant to avoid burning. Many do not realize that even some foods and perfumes can cause an increase in sun sensitivity. These foods include celery, citrus fruits such as lime peel, dill, fennel, parsley, and some artificial sweeteners.
When thinking about the best strategy to protect your skin, it’s important to understand that applying sunscreen is just one part. Other pieces of the puzzle include:
- Wear breathable, but protective clothing that covers sunburn prone areas, plus wearing a wide-brimmed hat to cover your head, face, ears, and neck. UV blocking sunglasses are also important to protect your eyes
- Avoid the sun during peak heating hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is when the sun’s UV rays are the strongest. Try to do outdoor activities either before or after that time period, but if that’s not an option, limit the time you are exposed to the sun and take breaks in the shade when you can
- Stay away from sun tanning and tanning beds. A great alternative is a spray tan or a self-tanner
To sum it all up, regular use of sunscreen can make a positive impact on your life, starting with your skin. A little can go a long way in protecting yourself from UV rays. Not only can exposure to UV rays cause sunburns, skin aging and potentially skin cancer, it can also cause other health problems as stated by the American Cancer Society:
- Eye problems - inflamed or burned cornea, formation of cataracts, and tissue growth on the surface of the eye, which can cause vision impairment or blindness if the eyes are not protected properly
- Weakened immune system where the body will have a harder time fighting infections
- Can cause vaccines to become less effective
In Southern California, it’s nearly impossible and not healthy to avoid the sun completely, but there are steps you can take to ensure you are being as safe as possible outdoors. The best way to treat a sunburn is to avoid getting one in the first place. I’m sure many of us can recall a time when we have had a sunburn in the past, but it is never too late to start wearing sunscreen and taking these preventative measures covered above.