Spending time outside in the sun feels good, boosts your mood, and is the most natural way to get vitamin D. While it’s important for everyone to get a healthy dose of sunshine every day, too much exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays damages your skin, causing sunburn, dark spots, wrinkles, and even skin cancer1 (the most common form of cancer in the US2).
Depending on the color of your skin, UV rays can damage unprotected skin in less than fifteen minutes.3 And, surprising to many people, sunscreen alone can’t shield your skin from the sun. Each year, about one-third of US adults get sunburned,4 and nearly five million people are treated for skin cancer nationally.5 Fortunately, most skin cancers can be prevented.
Over the course of your lifetime, you get sun exposure (even on cloudy days) doing everyday outdoor things like walking, running, gardening, swimming, biking, skiing, and mowing the lawn. That sun exposure adds up, so practicing sun safety should start at an early age.
Whether you’re heading to the beach or the pool or doing some work in the yard, here are eight ways to protect your skin.
1. Check the UV Index
The UV Index provides a daily forecast of the expected intensity of UV radiation from the sun.6 The higher the number on the 11-point scale, the greater your risk for overexposure. To help you stay safe, the Environmental Protection Agency publishes the UV Index for many areas across the country. Before heading outside, check the UV Index for your location—just enter your zip code.
Another easy way to determine how much sun exposure you’re getting is to follow the Shadow Rule: If your shadow is taller than you, such as in the early morning and late afternoon, your UV exposure is most likely low. If your shadow is shorter than you, such as around midday, your UV exposure is higher.7
“Men, especially those with lighter skin, are more likely than anybody else to get skin cancer.”8
2. Put on sunscreen
According to both the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation, everyone should use a water-resistant broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. This type of sunscreen helps protect your skin from UVA and UVB rays, sunburn, early aging, and skin cancer.11 But in order to be effective, sunscreen must be used as directed:
- Apply 30 minutes beforegoing outside12—and don’t forget about your ears, neck, hands, and feet
- Reapply every two hours and after swimming, sweating, and toweling off
- Discard if the expiration date has passed (sunscreen without an expiration date is good for three years from the date you buy it)13
Don’t be fooled into thinking that using a sunscreen with a very high SPF means you can stay in the sun longer, disregard reapplying, or dismiss any of the other protection recommendations, such as staying in the shade, avoiding long hours in the sun, or wearing a hat or protective clothing. The same safety precautions pertain.
3. Wear protective clothing, including hats and sunglasses
While tightly woven long-sleeve shirts, pants, and long skirts are ideal for protecting against UV rays, these types of clothing aren’t always practical for hot summer days or spending the afternoon at a beach or a pool. Still, wearing some type of clothing, such as a t-shirt or beach cover-up, is better than nothing.
For the most protection, don a wide-brimmed hat made from tightly woven fabric, such as canvas. (Straw hats can allow sunlight through.) This way your face, neck, and ears—areas on which people often forget to put sunscreen—will be shaded from the sun.
Sunglasses with UV protection are a wardrobe essential. They not only protect your eyes against UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts and eye diseases but also protect the delicate skin around your eyes.14 For the most coverage, opt for wrap-around sunglasses.
4. Enjoy the shade
Umbrellas, trees, and other shelters provide a reprieve from the heat and protection from the sun’s damaging rays.
5. Avoid spending prolonged periods in the sun—especially in the middle of the day
UV rays are strongest during the midday and early afternoon, usually between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. Make sure that if you’re in the sun during these hours, you apply sunscreen, sport protective clothing, and seek shade as often as possible.
6. Steer clear of tanning beds
Indoor tanning beds pose the same risks to your skin and eyes as outdoor UV light.15 And, contrary to what many people believe, using a tanning bed to build a “base tan” doesn’t protect against future sunburns.16 According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “there’s no such thing as a safe tan.”17
“Ultraviolet (UV) rays—from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds—are known to cause skin cancer.”18
7. Perform regular self-checks
“Being able to tell the difference between a sun spot and a potentially cancerous mole could save your life,” says Dr. Paola Rodriguez, a board-certified dermatologist.19 Once a month, check your skin from head to toe for any new or abnormal marks or moles, paying special attention to the following characteristics.
- Asymmetry: One half of the mark is shaped very differently from the other half
- Borders: Outer edges are blurry, irregular, and uneven
- Color: Variation in color or shading (noncancerous spots are typically one color)
- Diameter:Larger than six millimeters (the size of a pencil eraser)
In addition to the red flags above, any moles or marks that change in shape, size, color, or texture over time should be seen by a doctor.
“Performing periodic self-checks, asking your doctor about regular screenings, and practicing daily UV protection are all ways to reduce your risk of skin cancer.”
— Dr. Paola Rodriguez
8. See a dermatologist
If you notice any new or evolving spots or marks during your regular self-checks that exhibit the above characteristics, make an appointment with a dermatologist to get them checked out. When it comes to your health, it’s always better to play it safe.
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