Sarah Lewis, PharmD
Living your normal everyday life means that you can’t avoid exposing your skin to the sun. Repeated sun exposure adds up over the years and puts you at risk for skin cancer. So protecting your skin from the sun is important year round, even on cloudy days. But using sunscreen is not enough because no sunscreen—no matter how high the SPF—can provide 100% protection. That’s why you need a combination of sun protection measures.
Your skin is exposed to the sun every day, so sunscreen isn’t just for the beach. Use a daily broad-spectrum—blocking UVA and UVB rays—sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher on all exposed areas. And choose cosmetics and lip balms with SPF. For beach days, use water-resistant sunscreens with higher SPFs. Remember to apply sunscreen liberally 30 minutes before sun exposure, reapply every few hours and even more frequently after swimming or sweating, and check the expiration date.
The sun’s rays are strongest between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.—when your shadow is shorter than you. Try to schedule outdoor activities in the hours before or after this time. If you must be in the sun during these hours, seek shade—trees, umbrellas and shelters—as often as possible. If you rely on an umbrella for shade at the beach, find one with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 30 or more.
In the water, consider wearing a rash guard instead of a t-shirt. Wet t-shirts offer far less UV protection than dry ones. Rash guards are made of polyester and a stretchy material, and many have a built-in UPF. If you aren’t in the water, cover up with loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants. Tightly woven materials in dark colors provide more protection than loosely woven materials or lighter colors. And check clothing labels for UPF information. You want materials with a UPF of at least 30.
The face, ears, scalp and neck are common areas to find skin cancer. Give these areas extra protection with a wide-brimmed hat. Look for a brim that is three inches or more all the way around. Or choose a shade cap with fabric in the back to cover your ears and neck. Like clothing, tightly woven materials in dark colors provide greater protection. If you can see through the weave, the UV rays can get through it.
Sun exposure can lead to cataracts and damage the delicate skin around your eyes. Sunglasses will do double duty by protecting your vision and your skin. For sunglasses, darker doesn’t necessarily mean better protection. Dark tints only reduce the intensity of the nontoxic visible light with no blockage of the invisible UV rays. Larger frames or wrap-around glasses provide the best protection. And look for labels that specify the UVA and UVB coverage or that meet ANSI (American National Standards Institute) requirements. Don’t make any assumptions about sunglasses that aren’t labeled.
The daily UV index is often part of your local weather forecast. The index estimates the risk of overexposure to the sun on a scale from one to 11+. A higher number indicates greater risk. A UV alert means that the UV index in your area is expected to be six or greater—which is high—and unusually intense for the time of year. Be extra cautious or choose indoor activities if your area is under a UV alert.
Certain surfaces reflect the sun and intensify your exposure to UV rays. Any time you are around water, sand or snow, you need to think about reflection. It greatly increases the chance that you will sunburn. Be sure to apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen to all exposed areas, including your lips.
Some medications increase your skin’s sensitivity to the sun. Common examples include certain antibiotics, diuretics, antidepressants, cholesterol drugs, acne medications, high blood pressure medications, and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS). If you take prescription or over-the-counter medications, talk to your pharmacist about your sun exposure and find out if your medications increase your risk of sunburn.
Vitamin D is essential for your health and for strong bones. Your skin makes vitamin D when it is exposed to the sun. But the sun is not the only source of vitamin D. You can also find it naturally in fatty fish—tuna, swordfish and salmon—and in fortified foods, such as milk, cereal, yogurt, and orange juice. Talk to your doctor before taking a vitamin D supplement—too much can be harmful.
No tan is a safe tan. Indoor tanning—tanning beds and sunlamps—damages your skin through exposure to UVA and UVB rays. It can also lead to skin cancer. Protect your skin by avoiding indoor tanning altogether. Instead, opt for sunless tanning lotions if you want a tanned look.