Soaking up a little sunlight every day can boost your body’s vitamin D supply and even improve your emotional wellbeing. But it doesn’t take long for the sun’s rays to do more harm than good.
Spending too much time outdoors can expose you to the sun’s damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation rays — the main culprit of skin cancer. Luckily, by understanding UV radiation and its harmful effects, you can safeguard your skin from damage.
Understanding UV Radiation
Ultraviolet radiation is emitted naturally from the sun and artificially from sources like tanning beds. There are three different types of UV radiation: UVA, UVB, and UVC. These types are classified based on their wavelength — the shorter the wavelength, the more harm it does.
UVA has the longest wavelength and is associated with skin aging and wrinkles, whereas UVB has a shorter wavelength and causes redness, burning, and skin cancer. UVC has the shortest wavelength and therefore, is the most dangerous. But luckily for us, UVC is absorbed almost completely by the earth’s ozone layer and does not naturally reach our skin.
Dangers of UV Radiation
Though humans cannot physically see the sun’s UV rays, they can cause some serious damage.
“Too much exposure to UV radiation can lead to sunburns, eye damage and cataracts, premature aging, wrinkles, and age spots,” said Kaleah Hendren, family nurse practitioner at Family Care Center of Mocksville.
Everyone’s skin ages over time, but did you know UV rays speed up that process? Exposure to UV radiation damages collagen and elastin fibers, causing your skin to develop premature wrinkles and loosened folds. In addition, frequent sunburns or long hours spent tanning can cause your skin to darken permanently and develop a leathery texture.
“However, the worst consequence of long-term exposure to the sun is the development of skin cancer. Because the sun damage to your skin develops over the years, the older you are, the greater your risk of developing skin cancer,” she added.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. Even more surprisingly, more than two people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour.
UV rays actually damage the DNA in your skin cells, which can cause the cells to grow out of control and form tumors that may be cancerous. Exposure to UV rays may also weaken your immune system, making it less able to defend your body against aggressive skin cancer cells.
“While everyone’s skin and eyes can be affected by the sun, people with light skin are much more likely to have their skin damaged by UV rays and develop skin cancer. People with a family history of skin cancer are also at a higher risk,” said Hendren.
If you have freckles, blue or green eyes, blonde or red hair, or burn easily, you should pay special attention to sun protection as people with these characteristics are at a greater risk for developing skin cancer.
Protect your Skin
Despite the dangers of UV rays, you can and should still enjoy your summer outdoors.
Putting on sunscreen should be one of the first things you do every day. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day, even if you’re not outdoors.
“Choosing the right sunscreen for you is very important! For outdoor activities, use broad-spectrum protection that is water resistant and has an SPF of 30 or higher. You should apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going into the sun so your skin can absorb it. Make sure you apply sunscreen to bare skin, free of other lotions. And, remember to reapply every two hours as long as you are in the sun,” said Hendren.
You should follow these rules even on cloudy days. UV rays can still harm you, even if there are clouds in the sky.
Don’t forget your sunglasses
When in the sun, make sure to wear sunglasses. You should wear sunglasses outdoors year-round, not just in the summer.
“Choose sunglasses that block 99-100% of UV rays. Make sure to take extra care near water, snow, or sand. A great deal of the sun’s rays reflect off of these surfaces and intensify the sun’s damaging rays,” said Hendren.
Wear protective clothing
Wide brim hats and clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) can offer you protection from the sun. A fabric that says “UPF 50” only allows 1/50th of the sun’s UV radiation to pass through. This means the clothing item will block 98% of the sun’s rays.
When you are outside, do not stay in direct sunlight for too long. The sun’s rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you can, try to seek as much shade as you can during these peak hours.
Protect your little ones
If you have a baby less than six months old, you should keep them out of direct sunlight.
“Babies have very sensitive skin and cannot fully absorb the ingredients in sunscreen. So, keeping them in shady areas is better and can decrease their risk of developing skin cancer later in life,” said Hendren.
For babies and children older than six months, apply sunscreen when they spend any time outdoors.
By practicing these sun safety tips, you can protect yourself from the harmful effects of UV radiation.
Hendren practices at Family Care Center of Mocksville, located at 101 Wilkesboro Street, and is accepting new patients. If you would like to schedule an appointment with Kaleah Hendren, please call 336-753-0800.