Most of us love to be outdoors. When the weather is sunny, we are likely to be more active and enjoy activities like swimming in our backyard pool, hiking, outdoor tennis, baseball, soccer, fishing, and boating. You get the idea.
While we want to enjoy these activities, we also know we should protect our skin from the sun, specifically the ultraviolet (UV) rays. A recent study showed that only 14% of American men and 30% of American women apply sunscreen to their exposed skin and faces before going outdoors for an hour or more. So, what are UV rays and why is it so important to protect ourselves from too much exposure?
Most of the UV radiation is produced by the sun; however, UV rays are also produced by tanning lights and tanning beds. UV rays are the leading cause of skin cancer. Excess exposure to sunlight puts you at a greater risk. UV rays cause cancer by damaging the DNA in your skin cells.
There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVC rays have the most energy but they can’t penetrate our atmosphere and, therefore, do not pose a threat. UVA rays do penetrate our atmosphere and cause damage to the skin cell DNA. These rays cause aging of the cells and produce wrinkles. UVA rays cause some skin cancers. Tanning beds produce large amounts of UVA rays, which raises the risk of skin cancer for those exposed. UVB rays have slightly more energy and are the leading cause of sunburns. The UVB rays damage the DNA in the skin cells and are believed to cause most skin cancers.
Check the Index
The National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency have joined together to develop the UV Index. The UV Index rates the strength of the UV light on a scale of 1 to 11+. The higher the number, the greater the danger. The UV Index for your area is available on TV weather segments, online, and via your smartphone.
There are a number of factors that influence the UV Index. The UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. They are also stronger in the spring and summer. Higher elevations will have a higher UV Index. Cloud cover can work either way. If dense enough, the cloud cover can prevent the UV rays from reaching you, but a light cloud cover can intensify the effect. Don’t skip sunscreen because it is a cloudy day.
If you are at the beach or using your above-ground pool, be aware that the sand and water can reflect the UV rays back at you, increasing your exposure. The same is true of snow. We have a tendency to equate sunburn and tanning with warm weather, but some of the worst sunburns occur in spring when it is still cold. The UV Index is at its highest in the winter when people take ski vacations or participate in other outdoor activities. If you haven’t used sunscreen, you are at a high risk of getting a sunburn and the skin cell damage associated with that burn.
Apply and Reapply
You will want to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it will block both UVA and UVB rays. The sun protection factor (SPF) should be 30 or higher. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied at least every two hours. Reapply more frequently if it may have been washed off by swimming or sweating or if it is rubbed off when drying with a towel. Check the expiration date. Most sunscreen products are good for two to three years, but that can be shortened if it has been exposed to heat, such as when stored in the car or lying in the sun at the beach.
Apply sunscreen generously. Take care to apply to face, ears, neck, and arms. Also, don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the top of your feet if you are wearing sandals or flip flops. Apply sunscreen to any exposed skin. There is no such thing as waterproof sunscreen. There are sunscreens that are water resistant, and these can be somewhat more effective if you are swimming at the beach or in your backyard pool. However, to be safe, reapply your sunscreen frequently for the best UV protection.
Certain careers put people at a higher risk from UV exposure. Farming is one. For centuries, farmers have been totally exposed to the environment, including the sun’s rays. During the planting season in spring, just when the UV Index is highest, the farmer was out on his tractor from sunrise to sunset.
Today’s modern tractors have enclosed cabs with air conditioning and tinted glass, but the small-time farmer can’t afford such a high-tech tractor and is still out every day with major exposure. This is repeated in the fall during harvest season.
Other high-risk occupations include commercial fishermen, construction workers, truck drivers, and those in other outdoor occupations where they may be in full sun for the majority of their workday.
Check Your Meds
Another factor that can cause you to be more sensitive to the UV rays is using certain medications. These include some blood pressure medications and antibiotics or antifungals and some anti-inflammatory medications. Check the meds your senior family members are taking before exposing them to the sun.
So, what can you do to minimize your exposure to the UV rays? Here are some ideas.
1. Use sunscreen. Whenever you go outside, apply sunscreen to all exposed skin. Sunscreen is a filter to prevent most, but not all, of the sun’s UV rays from reaching your skin. Using sunscreen does not mean you can spend unlimited time in the sun without damage from the UV rays. You still need to use other methods to prevent exposure as well.
Sunscreen comes in many forms, including lotion, creams, spray bottles, wipes, and lip balm. Keep sunscreen in your car backpack or purse. Try to always have sunscreen accessible so if you have an unexpected need for sunscreen, it is always available. Sunscreen is also being used as an ingredient in much of the makeup manufactured today. This is especially common in moisturizers and foundation makeup, as well as many lipsticks. Check the label to see if your favorites include sunscreen.
You will want a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which means it will block both UVA and UVB rays. The sun protection factor (SPF) should be 30 or higher. Sunscreen needs to be reapplied at least every two hours. Reapply more frequently if it may have been washed off by swimming or sweating, or if it is rubbed off when drying with a towel.
Check the expiration date. Most sunscreen products are good for two to three years, but that can be shortened if it has been exposed to heat such as when stored in the car or lying in the sun at the beach. If you intend to also apply makeup or insect repellent with your sunscreen, apply the sunscreen first.
2. Provide shade. The most effective way to avoid the UV rays of the sun is to stay out of direct sunlight. Whenever you are going to enjoy time outdoors, think about shade. Are there trees for shade? If not, bring a beach umbrella to sit under. Provide a shade cover on your patio or deck with an awning or sail. There are portable lawn chairs with shade umbrellas attached that are perfect for viewing your child’s soccer game.
3. Wear a hat. Choose a hat with a wide brim that will shade your neck, ears, and face, including your nose. A shade cap which is available in sporting goods stores is a great choice. It looks like a baseball cap with the addition of a fabric “curtain” which is about seven inches long and hangs from the sides and back of the cap. This type of cap provides good protection for your neck and ears and is often used by hikers.
You can DIY a shade cap by placing a bandana or large handkerchief under a baseball cap. The addition of a non-reflective dark fabric on the underside of the cap brim will help to minimize the impact of UV rays on the reflective surface of the water.
4. Wear sunglasses. Choose the larger wraparound glasses that give maximum coverage to the eyes and surrounding skin. Look for glasses that are labeled “Meets ANSI UV Requirements” or that say “UV absorption up to 400 nm.” This means the glasses will block 99% of the UV rays. Many contact lenses are now manufactured to block UV rays, but that won’t protect the skin around the eyes. You will need the addition of sunglasses with the ANSI label.
Research has shown that UV rays can increase the chances of developing certain eye diseases, including cataracts, so don’t skip this protection. Tip: Don’t think that dark sunglasses will protect your eyes. The color has no impact on the amount of UV protection. Look for the label.
5. Wear protective clothing. Clothing can keep the sun’s rays from ever reaching your skin. Long pants or skirts with long-sleeved shirts will provide the most protection. The tighter the weave of the fabric, the better the protection. Dry clothes are more effective than wet clothes. Darker-colored fabric is more effective than light-colored clothes.
There are also some manufacturers who are making clothes from fabric that protects against UV rays. The fabric is generally more tightly woven, and some are treated with a coating that helps to absorb the UV rays. The clothes should be labeled with a UPF value (UV Protective Factor). This is a number scale from 15 to 50, with the higher the number the higher the level of protection provided from the UV rays.
6. Avoid tanning beds. Tanning beds will expose you to both UVA and UVB rays. Research has shown a link between tanning bed use and an increase in risk of melanoma (skin cancer). This is especially true if your use of the tanning bed started before the age of 30. Dermatologists (skin doctors) agree that tanning beds should be avoided. If you like the look of tanned skin, use the tanning spray instead. This is a sunless product that gives you the look without the exposure to the UV rays.
7. Avoid peak hours. The highest levels of UV rays are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Try to plan your outdoor recreation to avoid being outside during these hours. If that is not possible, utilize the other techniques listed above to minimize the amount of exposure.
8. UV rays penetrate glass. Even indoors, you will need protection if you are exposed to the sun through windows and glass doors. This also applies to when you are driving your car. Close the sunroof shade and keep the convertible top up when you will be driving for longer periods. Of course, apply sunscreen.
You don’t have to stay indoors in order to protect against UV-ray-related health issues. Use these common-sense tactics, as well as consistently applying sunscreen, and you can continue to enjoy being outdoors throughout the year.