The summer sun finally made an appearance in New York this week, bringing with it the warmest temperatures we’ve had so far. I took the opportunity on Sunday to get outside with my family and enjoy the warm air. But that outdoor adventure also brought me a first for the season: a sunburn. When the weather changes outside, we all tend to forget about the dangers of the sun after having been covered by coats and hats all winter long. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month and, with the temperature climbing, it’s time to start thinking about how you’re going to have fun in the sun while also protecting yourself and your family from the potential harms of the sun’s rays.
How the Sun Damages Your Skin
You’ve probably been told over and over that too much sun can damage your skin, but you might be wondering how exactly that happens. It turns out that the sun gives off more than just light. The light you see with your eyes is just one part of a spectrum of energy released by the sun. The warmth you feel when standing in sunlight, for example, is another kind of energy called infrared radiation.
The sun also releases a form of energy called ultraviolet (UV) radiation that isn’t visible to the naked eye and that we don’t feel on our skin. But this UV radiation is far from harmless. It can slam into the cells of the skin and kill them or damage them. UV radiation can also mutate genes in these cells, turning some on and flipping others off. These genome changes can lead to changes in how cells grow, which can eventually lead to deadly skin cancer.
The Different Types of UV Radiation
It’s important to know that there are two main types of UV radiation: UVA and UVB. UVB is higher in energy than UVA, but it can’t penetrate deeply into the skin. It damages the surface and is what causes your typical sunburn. UVB also plays a major role in skin wrinkling and the appearance of skin aging. UVA is slightly lower in energy, but can penetrate deep under the surface of your skin. It mutates the cells responsible for replacing your skin, which is why UVA is particularly dangerous. It’s important to protect against both UVA and UVB since they both play a role in long-term skin damage.
How You Should Protect Yourself
There are three major ways to keep your skin safe and healthy when the sun is out.
- Avoidance. I encourage you to get outside this summer, but it’s best to avoid the hours of peak sunlight if you can. The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so aim for morning or evening exercise if you’re looking to get outside. If you do end up going out in the middle of the day, try to find a shady spot out of direct sunlight.
- Cover up your skin. There’s plenty of clothing you can buy that’s made of light, breathable materials that will keep you cool during the summer and protect you from the sun’s rays. When it comes to buying clothing for the sun, look for a high “ultraviolet protection factor” or UPF. Polyester is the best for sun protection and nylon does a good job as well. Plant fibers like cotton or hemp don’t do a very good job, but they’re still better than bare skin. Don’t forget to also always wear a hat to protect your face and scalp.
- Always apply sunscreen when you’re going out. You want a “broad-spectrum” sunscreen that is going to protect against UVA and UVB rays. It should have an SPF of at least 30 and at most 50. Going above 50 doesn’t add much protection and doesn’t keep you from needing to reapply. Make sure you reapply your sunscreen every two to three hours and more often than that if you’re sweating a lot or spending time in the water. Finally, steer clear of spray-on sunscreen, powdered sunscreen, or towelette sunscreen. They might seem convenient, but you’re more likely to miss a spot or fail to put enough on when you use them.
Checking Your Skin
Above all, it’s important to give your skin a look over every now and then. While melanoma and other skin cancers can be very deadly, they’re also often curable if they’re caught in their early stages. You should look over all of your skin every few months and take note of any moles or dark spots. It’s best to do this with a partner who can check hard-to-see spots for you. The back and neck are particularly prone to skin cancer. Use the ABCDE system to determine if that spot might be concerning and bring it to the attention of a trained professional. If you have any concerns at all, you should make an appointment to see someone.
I want everyone to get outside and enjoy the summer this year, but I also want you to be safe about doing it. Skin cancer is a preventable disease as long as you take the right precautions.