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Summer is rolling in and with it comes beach trips, picnics, watersports, and more recreation in the sun. There’s a lot to enjoy outside, but the sun can cause permanent damage to our skin if we don’t take steps to protect it. If you plan to spend time outside this summer, here’s what you need to know about sun safety.
Effects of the sun.
Sun exposure is the number one cause of basal cell carcinoma, the most common type of skin cancer. That’s because the sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) radiation, and too much of it can damage the DNA in our skin cells, causing them to grow out of control. We’ve made significant advances in detecting and treating skin cancer. But certain types of skin cancer, like melanoma, can still be life-threatening, which is why prevention is critical.
Aside from skin cancer, too much sun exposure can also lead to other immediate and long-term consequences, including painful sunburn and premature skin aging—like wrinkles and sun spots. The strength of UV rays varies depending on where you are, the time of day, and your environment (e.g., water and snow reflects sunlight), but anytime you're outside, you are susceptible to sun damage. And that’s why we should be vigilant about protecting our skin, whether we’re gardening outside in June or skiing on a mountain in December.
Tan or sunburnt skin is a sign of damage.
According to a recent MedStar Health survey about sun safety, 41 percent of surveyed individuals believe that getting a “base tan” is a good way to prevent sunburns. But this is a dangerous approach. There’s no such thing as a base tan or even a healthy tan. Any tan is a signal that your skin has had too much exposure to ultraviolet light.
A sunburn is evidence of even more damage to the skin. It can cause immediate pain and discomfort, but it can also hurt you in the long run. Having a history of sunburns—mild or severe—significantly increases your risk of developing skin cancer.
In addition, the most severe sunburns can cause sun blisters. These painful blisters are linked to melanoma, which is the deadliest type of skin cancer. You can get a sun blister on any exposed area of skin after too much time in the sun, even on the lips. If you get a sun blister, don’t pop it. The top skin can help to prevent infection and a topical, fragrance-free cream may provide some relief. If a sun blister appears to be infected or you develop a fever, call your doctor.
How to protect your skin in the sun.
According to a recent MedStar Health survey, nearly 50 percent of Maryland residents cite the beach as their favorite summer activity. However, the survey also revealed that more people pack snacks in their beach bags than sunscreen. While yummy snacks and cold beverages are important (really, wherever we go), it’s even more critical that we take preventative measures to limit our skin’s exposure to the sun.
People of all skin tones need sunscreen.
Sunscreen is the number one item you should be stocking up on for beach trips because it’s the best way to protect your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays. This is true for everyone, even if you have darker skin or “tan easily.” It’s a common myth that people with darker skin don’t need sunscreen, but that’s simply not true. Dark skin contains more melanin, a protective pigment that may reduce the risk of sun damage. However, all skin tones are susceptible to sunburns, premature skin aging, and cancer.
The higher the sunscreen SPF, the greater the protection.
Sunscreens use a numeric rating known as “SPF” to indicate how well they are estimated to protect against the harmful rays of the sun. SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor” and can range from:
- 15 and below: Low protection
- 15 to 29: Moderate protection
- 30 to 49: High protection
- 50 and above: Very high protection
The higher the SPF rating, the greater your skin is protected from UVB rays, which can cause sunburn or even skin cancer. We recommend using an SPF 50 or higher to block as many rays as possible. There’s really no such thing as an SPF that is “too much.”
You need more sunscreen than you think.
Experts suggest that it takes two ounces, or a shot glass worth of sunscreen to adequately protect the body from the sun. But every body is different in size and shape, so this can’t universally be applied to everyone. If your sunscreen coverage is too thin, your skin won’t be protected at the level stated on your sunscreen bottle. In general, try to use more than you think you’ll need–and reapply every two hours.
Clothes, hats, and eyewear offer additional protection.
Similar to sunscreen, tight-weave sun protection clothing is measured by UPF, or ultraviolet protection factor. UPF ratings are based on the material and color of the garment, as well as how it is constructed. The higher the UPF rating, the more you are protected. In addition, a hat that covers your neck and shades your face will also offer protection from the sun better than a baseball cap will. And sunglasses with UVA/B protection will minimize damage to your eyes, which can accelerate cataracts and other issues.
Preventing skin cancer.
People with light skin have the greatest risk of developing skin cancer.Anyone can get skin cancer, but some people have a higher risk than others. You may be more likely to develop skin cancer if you:
- Have light skin
- A tendency to sunburn
- History of blistering sunburns
- A large number of moles
- Family history of skin cancer at an early age
- Have a weakened immune system
Even if you aren’t considered high-risk for developing skin cancer, you should always wear sunscreen and protective clothing to minimize sun damage. The goal isn’t to avoid a sunburn, although that’s important too. Ultimately, you want to protect your skin from any kind of damage, visible or invisible.
Everyone should perform skin self-exams.
It’s never too early to perform a skin exam on yourself or to ask your doctor to check your skin. You can search for abnormal or new growths on your own skin or have a partner check. Don’t know what to look for? Keep an eye out for moles that meet ABCDE criteria:
- Uneven borders
- Varying colors
- Large diameters
- Evolving traits (changes in size, shape, or color)
If you notice anything unusual or concerning, you should always talk to your primary care doctor. They can refer you to a dermatologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating skin conditions. If something on your skin looks out of place, it’s always better to get it checked early, even if it turns out to be nothing.