10 Tips for Staying Safe in the Sun this Summer

Northwestern Medicine
Dermatology July 03, 2014
Women applying sunscreenSummer temperatures are here, which means more and more people are increasing their sun exposure, spending more time outside in less protective clothing. While prolonged sun exposure is the number one risk factor for skin cancer, some of the most effective precautions to prevent sun damage and skin cancer are also the easiest. 

Northwestern Medicine® dermatologists Emily Keimig, MD, and Benjamin Marks, MD, offer 10 tips for enjoying the summer outdoors, while still protecting skin from sun exposure.

1)  Wear protective clothing. Long sleeve shirts, pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses are all helpful in preventing damage from the sun’s radiation. However, very thin fabrics cannot effectively block the sun. Seek clothing with a tighter weave or even clothing that has a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) at the store.

“Clothing has to be thick enough to actually block sunlight. Thinner fabrics that you can see through under direct light will not offer enough protection to make a difference,” said Keimig, dermatologist at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and clinical instructor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “The good news is that clothing with UPF actually looks pretty stylish now, which hasn’t always been the case, and can be worn out comfortably with friends at BBQs and other outdoor events.” 

2)  Avoid prolonged sunlight exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. when the sun’s light is at its strongest. “Avoiding these peak hours are almost as important as wearing protective clothing and sun screen,” said Marks, dermatologist at Northwestern Medicine’s Glenview Outpatient Center. “Still, direct sunlight at any time of day without taking appropriate precautions can be damaging and increase your risk for skin cancer.”

3)  Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going outdoors, whether it is sunny or not. Sunscreens need time to set before they are fully effective. Waiting for 15 minutes before going outside can make a big difference whether it is sunny or cloudy, especially for those with lighter skin.

“I have seen a number of patients come in with sunburns that were outside on cloudy days without any protection,” said Keimig. Keimig added that while cloud cover can help reduce the risk for damage, up to 80 percent of the sun’s rays still make it through.

4)  Use enough sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology* recommends that patients use about one ounce of sunscreen. Some adjustment may be needed depending on a person’s body size.

“A lot of people don’t use enough sunscreen or know how much to use,” said Keimig. “It is great that someone uses sunscreen, but for it to be truly effective you have to use the right amount, which is roughly enough to fill a shot glass to cover the body.”

5)  Choose a sunscreen that has broad spectrum coverage – both UVA and UVB protection – with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to all exposed skin. While there are many sunscreens with SPF number higher than 30, an SPF 30 sunscreen blocks about 97% of the sun’s harmful ultra violet radiation. 

Marks added that instead of looking for a sunscreen with an SPF higher than 30, “it is more important to verify that sunscreen has broad spectrum coverage and focus on applying it to any skin that isn’t already covered, especially the tops of the ears, lips, and feet.”

6)  Stay in the shade whenever possible. “While shade is no substitute for sunscreen, it can be a tool to help prevent damage the sun by providing a extra protection from direct sunlight,” said Keimig.

7)  Choose a water-resistant and sweat-resistant sunscreen. “No sunscreen is water-proof or sweat-proof,” said Marks. “But water-resistant and sweat-resistant sunscreens offer better protection since they designed to be much less likely to wash away when they are needed most.”

8)  Reapply sunscreen as recommended on your sunscreen’s label. There isn’t a universal timeframe to safely reapply sunscreen. Different sunscreens have different consistencies and active blocking agents. 

“A good portion of sunscreens may need to be reapplied more frequently than every two hours to stay effective,” said Marks. “It is also important to remember that a higher SPF doesn’t mean you can wait longer to reapply. The only way to know how often to reapply is by checking the label.”

9)  Stay mindful of reflective surfaces outside, including water, snow and sand. “Water, snow and sand all reflect sunlight, which increases the risk for sunburn,” said Keimig. “It is easy to forget that even though you may be in the shade on a boat or on the beach, you are actually probably getting more sun than normal if you are close by the water.”

10)  When indoors, avoid tanning beds.  Any tan whether from the sun or a tanning bed is a sign of sun damage, and is not healthy. The Skin Cancer Foundation* declared ultra violet light, whether it is from the sun or a tanning bed as a carcinogen (cancer-causing) and one of the most harmful forms of radiation.

“Indoor tanning beds can raise the risk for melanoma by 59 percent and that risk increases every time a tanning bed is used,” said Keimig. “If someone asks how they can get a little extra color I recommend self tanner, which is 100 percent radiation-free.” 

To learn more about how to keep your skin safe and healthy this summer, visit http://nmgdermatology.nm.org/ or call 312-926-DOCS (3627).
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