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Fun in the Sun: Tips to Keep You and Your Family Safe This Summer

By Dr. Valerie Lyon, Dermatologist, Columbia St. Mary’s Grafton Medical Center

While it may have taken a little longer than expected, summer weather is out – finally – in full force.

With it comes swimming, gardening, cookouts and a whole host of outdoor activities that put you at risk from the sun.

Luckily, there are some simple yet important guidelines to follow to ensure you and your whole family stay safe while having fun in the sun.

First, some facts.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, affecting more than two million people each year. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer over the course of their life.

Ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun is the greatest contributor to developing skin cancer. Half of all adults report at least one sunburn in the past year. Sun damage occurs early, at a young age, and the effects are not apparent until later in life.

In order to limit sun damage, follow these simple steps.

• Avoid extended, direct exposure to the sun, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

• Avoid tanning beds and UV tanning booths.

• Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses. Those swim shirts (often with an ultraviolet protection factor of more than 50) are also a great idea, especially for children.

• Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day.

• For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

• Apply one ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside.

• Reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.

• Apply a generous amount. If you are unsure how much you need, apply twice as thick a layer of sunscreen as you think you should – studies have shown this is the only way to reach the SPF claimed on the bottle. If you burn easily, have blue eyes, red hair and/or freckles, take particular care to do this.

• Keep newborns out of the sun. Their bodies cannot tolerate direct sunlight and heat. Find shade or cover up. At 6 months of age, baby sunscreens can be applied.

• Remember to apply sunscreen to tops of your ears, tips of nose, back of hands and tops of feet.

• Don’t forget your lips! Use a lip balm with at least an SPF of 15.

• Never seek a tan. There is no such thing as a healthy tan – a tan is the skin’s response to the sun’s damaging rays.

• Avoid spray sunscreen as your sole form of sun protection. Although they are easier to apply, sprays fly away in the wind and are often not as effective with practical use. Unless one can be diligent about ensuring a generous layer of sheen uniformly distributed on the skin, sprays should only be used in conjunction with a lotion, which can achieve more uniform coverage.

• Sunscreen does go bad. Most are designed to last up to three years – a good trick is to write the purchase date on the bottle so you can keep track. Some sunscreens will have an expiration date printed on the label. If it’s past the date, throw it away. However, if you’re using it as often as you should, you’ll run out way before it goes bad. 
• More expensive does not mean a better sunscreen.

• When looking at sunscreens, you should be familiar with the two types of UV blockers.

Chemical Blockers. UV blockers are chemicals that absorb into the outer layer of the skin and absorb the UV light, preventing damage. These are conveniently packaged into gels, sprays and non-greasy lotions. Active ingredients to look for include oxybenzone and avobenzone (Parsol®). Some more expensive brands might also have helioplex or mexoryl, which are highly recommended when this type of sunscreen is the sole form of UV protection.

Physical Blockers. UV blockers are “nanoparticles” (not chemicals) that physically coat the skin (instead of being absorbed) and reflect the UV light. These sunscreens contain the active ingredient zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Though generally thicker and harder to rub in, these are considered the best defense against the sun’s harmful UV rays and are recommended for young children. “Baby” and “kids” sunscreens and “invisible zinc” are examples.

If natural sunscreens are your preference, be sure to choose one with the right ingredients listed above. 

That’s all there is to it. I know it can seem daunting, but with a little practice, these guidelines will become second nature. And your skin will thank you.


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