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Sun Protection for You and Your Family

Woman in the sun wearing hat and sunglasses

As the days lengthen, spending long afternoons in the sun may sound tempting. Before you head out the door, be sure to protect yourself and your loved ones from potential sun damage.

Starting early with protective measures is key, as the sun does its harm to our skin over time. Sunburns and repeated skin damage in early childhood are linked to skin cancers that develop later in life. Staying informed about the effects of UV radiation, as well as how to prevent them, can protect you and your children, now and well into adulthood.

What Are UV Rays?

UV, or ultraviolet, rays are a form of energy invisible to the human eye. There are many types of radiation, from low-energy waves like radio waves to high-energy sources like X-rays and gamma rays. UV rays fall in the middle of that spectrum – they hold more energy than visible light, but not as much as X-rays. Most UV rays come from the sun, but they can also be created by things like indoor tanning beds and sun lamps.

There are two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays aren’t as strong as UVB, but cause skin cell aging and can indirectly damage your cells’ DNA. They’re mainly linked to long-term skin damage, but may contribute to skin cancers as well. UVB rays, on the other hand, are the stronger of the two. They contain more energy and cause sunburns as well as many skin cancers. Both can cause damage in as little as 15 minutes. Remember, there are no safe UV rays!

UV Rays and Melanin

The outer layer of our skin contains the pigment melanin, which is our first defense against the sun. It absorbs dangerous UV rays that can seriously harm our skin. We get sunburns when the amount of UV damage we receive exceeds the protection that our skin’s melanin provides.

People with darker skin have more melanin and therefore more built-in skin protection, but can still receive long-term skin damage from sun exposure. Sunscreen is an important step for every skin tone.

Health Effects of UV Radiation

  • Sunburn contributes to dark spots, rough spots and wrinkles, and raises the risk of melanoma and other skin cancers.
  • Skin cancer is among the greatest risks posed by UV exposure, as higher-energy rays can damage cell DNA directly. It’s the most common type of cancer – over 5.4 million Americans each year are found to have it, more than all other cancer diagnoses combined.
  • Eye damage. The sun can burn or inflame our corneas, the transparent coverings at the front of our eyes, and lead to cataracts later in life.
  • Suppressed immune systems. Our skin forms our body’s outermost layer of protection against pathogens and other foreign invaders, but overexposure to UV radiation weakens its ability to protect us. Sun exposure can even cause vaccines to be less effective.

What If My Child Gets a Sunburn?

For sunburn care, especially in children whose skin may be sensitive, be sure to:

  • Keep your child out of the sun until the burn is healed.
  • Use aloe products, a topical moisturizer or hydrocortisone cream to soothe burned skin. A cold compress may help as well.
  • Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain if necessary, but never aspirin. You can also use a topical pain reliever if needed.
  • Don’t pop blisters. They can get infected.
  • Ensure your child drinks enough water. Sunburned skin needs extra hydration to heal.

Sunscreen 101

Wear it! Sunscreen works by absorbing, reflecting or scattering sunlight. When you use sunscreen, keep the following tips in mind:

  • 1 oz of sunscreen, or about a palmful, should cover the arms, legs, neck and face of the average adult. You’ll need more if you’re in a bathing suit or top that exposes your back, chest or shoulders. Every child over 6 months old should use sunscreen too!
  • Reapply, reapply, reapply! Sunscreen isn’t meant to allow you or your kids to spend more time in the sun than you would otherwise. Apply your sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside, and while you’re out, and reapply it every two hours or after swimming, sweating or toweling off.
  • Sunscreen does expire. It has a shelf life of no more than three years, but that’s shorter if it’s been exposed to high temperatures. Shake it up before you apply it if it’s been sitting on a shelf for a while.
  • Sensitive skin? Not every product has the same ingredients, so if one doesn’t work with your skin, try another. If you have sensitive skin or are testing for a child, apply a small amount to soft skin on the inside of your elbow every day for three days. If it doesn’t turn red or become itchy, that product will most likely work for you.
  • Wear sunscreen daily. Look for products that contain at least SPF 15. Some makeup products and lip balms you may already use contain the same sun-protective ingredients used in sunscreens. If they don’t have SPF 15 or higher, use other forms of protection too.

What Do Those Labels Mean, Anyway?

SPF stands for sun protection factor, a number that rates a product’s effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate higher protection from UVB rays (not UVA), but they aren’t a reason to be any less careful!

  • Unfortunately, no sunscreen blocks UV radiation 100%. Using SPF 30 sunscreen means that for every 30 minutes you spend in the sun, you receive one minute of UVB ray exposure. One hour in the sun wearing SPF 30 sunscreen is the same as spending two minutes totally unprotected. In other words, SPF 15 filters about 93% of the sun’s rays, and SPF 100 filters about 99%.
  • When shopping for sunscreen, look for “broad spectrum protection,” meaning that it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Try to find sunscreens containing avobenzone (Parson 1789), zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
  • “Waterproof” or “sweatproof” claims are usually false! If a sunscreen claims it’s water resistant, check to see if they protect the skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming/sweating, based on testing.
  • Check for reef-friendly sunscreens! Some sunscreens are greener than others — chemicals commonly found in many sunscreens are linked to coral reef deterioration. Broad-spectrum mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide form physical barriers to UV rays rather than chemical ones, and do not harm endangered marine life.

Other Ways to Stay Sun-Safe

  • Check the UV index for your area, which changes daily, with this tool from the EPA: https://www.epa.gov/enviro/uv-index-search
  • Cover up! Clothing can provide protection from UV rays, as can sunglasses, hats and sources of shade like umbrellas. Long-sleeved shirts and pants provide the most protection, and darker colors offer more than light ones. Some clothing is specifically designed for sun protection and may have a UPF, or UV protection factor, on the label, ranging from 15 to 50+.
  • Don’t tan. Tanning skin is ultimately damaging skin, and people who tan outdoors or in a tanning bed have a higher risk of skin cancer. Studies have shown that indoor tanning, which often uses UVA bulbs, is linked to melanoma. Your risk of this dangerous strain of skin cancer is higher if you start indoor tanning before the age of 30 or 35, and the risk of basal and squamous skin cancer is higher if you began indoor tanning before the age of 25.
  • Avoid the hottest times of the day. UV rays are at their strongest and most damaging at midday, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. You’re also more likely to get skin damage from UV rays during spring and summer months.
  • Stay in the shade. Clouds don’t actually block UV rays, but instead filter them. Try to find a better source of shade, like a tree or an awning, or consider bringing an umbrella.
  • Set a good example for your family members. Wearing sunscreen every day and avoiding tanning beds can encourage those around you to develop healthy habits, too.

From all of us at Riverside Medical Clinic, we wish you and your family a healthy, sun-safe spring and summer!