This post was written by Katherine Brown, PharmD, Parkview Health.
As we head into the summer months and the temperature warms up, our skin is more likely to be directly exposed to the heat of the sun. While spending time outdoors is a wonderful way to get physical activity and boost vitamin D, too much exposure can increase the risk of skin cancer. There are many ways to protect your skin from these risks while enjoying the splendor of summer.
How does the sun contribute to the risk of skin cancer?
The sun emits ultraviolet light, often called UV rays. These rays are not visible and also come from tanning beds and sunlamps. If your skin is exposed to significant UV rays during your lifetime, it causes skin damage that leads to skin cancer.
Two specific types of UV rays contribute to cancer risk:
- Ultraviolet A (UVA), commonly associated with skin aging
- Ultraviolet B (UVB), often associated with skin burns
UV rays pass through clouds, even in cool weather, and can reflect off water, cement, sand and snow. This means that you are at risk even in winter! In the United States, UV rays are generally strongest between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. standard time.
How do I protect my skin from the sun?
There are several ways to reduce the risk of skin cancer from UV exposure:
- Maximize time spent in the shade, such as under trees or under shelter. Remember that clouds do not protect you from UV rays.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants. A dry shirt is better than wet and darker colors are better than lighter colors. Some garments have special certification for UV protection.
- Wear wide-brimmed hats to protect parts of your head that we don’t often think about, like the ears and the back of the neck. A baseball cap will not protect these parts of your body, although it will provide shade for your eyes and face.
- Wear sunglasses to protect your eyes and the thin skin around your eyes.
- Solar cream!
What type of sunscreen should I use and how should I use it?
The FDA regulates sunscreens to meet certain skin protection standards. Broad-spectrum sunscreens will protect you from both UVA and UVB. Not all sunscreens are broad-spectrum, so be sure to check the label.
The sun protection factor (SPF) is a measure of the quality of sun protection. It compares the amount of solar radiation needed to cause sunburn on protected skin versus unprotected skin. The higher the number, the better the protection. An SPF of at least 15 will provide adequate sun protection.
Sunscreen can protect you in two ways:
- Physical sunscreens have active mineral ingredients that sit on the skin and physically block UV rays. Sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide are physical sunscreens. These options are less likely to irritate the skin and are ideal for people with rosacea or other skin conditions.
- Chemical sunscreens have active ingredients that absorb UV rays on contact. A chemical reaction occurs to prevent the harmful effects of UV rays. Sunscreens containing avobenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, oxybenzone, or octobenzone are chemical sunscreens. These sunscreens are thinner and spread more easily on the skin, but are more likely to irritate the skin. You also need to reapply more frequently than physical sunscreens.
Apply sunscreen to everything areas of the body that will be exposed to the sun. This includes the ears, nose, lips, back of the neck, hands, tops of the feet, along the hairline, and other areas of the head not covered in hair. Apply to skin 15 minutes before going out. Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours or more often if you’re swimming or sweating (don’t be fooled by “waterproof” or “water-resistant” sunscreen, as it can wear off in another 40 minutes after application).
Sunscreen is not recommended for children under 6 months. Please use other skin protection methods.
How to treat a sunburn?
Despite the proper protective measures, it is still possible to get a sunburn, especially if you have fair skin. Follow these guidelines for treating a sunburn:
- Stop continuous exposure to the sun – preferably stay indoors until the sunburn heals.
- Short, cool baths or showers help relieve pain.
- Water-based moisturizers with aloe vera help soothe skin. Aloe gels can also help.
- For particularly painful areas, a hydrocortisone cream can be applied to the skin. This can be purchased without a prescription. Do not apply to open blisters.
- Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications such as ibuprofen or naproxen can help relieve pain and irritation. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if it is safe for you to take these medicines.
- Drink more water to avoid dehydration caused by sunburn.
- Let the blisters heal if they occur. Do not pop the blisters, as they help your skin heal and protect you from infection.
- Avoid any medication ending in “caine” such as benzocaine. These can further irritate your skin.
When should I see a doctor?
Some sunburns may be severe enough not to be treated at home. Seek additional help from an urgent care service or the emergency room if any of the following occur:
- You develop severe blisters over a large part of your body
- You develop a fever or chills
- You become dizzy or confused
Use your local pharmacist as a resource to decide if you need to seek additional medical care.
Skin cancer: sun safety. Centers for Disaster Control and Prevention
Sunscreen: How to help protect your skin from the sun. Food and drug administration
UV radiation and your skin. skin cancer foundation
How to treat sunburn. American Academy of Dermatology