You walk outside to feel the warmth of the sun’s embrace. A gentle breeze tickles your face and rustles your hair. Nature is bustling with singing birds and buzzing insects.
School is out. This means vacation time for many families and individuals. Camping, hiking, the beach, or road trips are all part of the summer experience.
Ahh summer… a glorious time for some, but not-so-glorious for others. If you are of the fairer skin variety, you probably think twice before heading outside. After all, you sunburn easily. If you display the darker tones, skin protection may not cross your mind as much.
Wherever you fall on the shade spectrum, you need to protect your skin. It’s one of our largest organs, and has a big job to do. Our environment is constantly barraging our skin. The sun often contributes by giving off UV rays. And as a result, dark spots, wrinkles, and even cancers can show up over time.
You often hear "protect your skin" messages, but wouldn’t it be nice to understand some of the "why" behind it?
We thought so, too. So before we get into the sun-safety tips, let’s go over what causes the damage in the first place: Ultraviolet Rays.
What Are UV Rays?
The sun gives off UV (ultraviolet) rays. It’s a completely normal event, and ultraviolet rays are some of the many different types of radiation on the planet. While it often gets a bad rap, it does have important benefits. Check out some of the pros and cons of UV rays (1):
Pros of UV rays:
- Vitamin D - Sun exposure activates vitamin D production in the body. Studies show that 15 minutes a day can help strengthen your immune system, muscles, and bones. Vitamin D is also important in improving depression and other mood disorders.
- Helps Vision and Navigation - Birds and insects use UV rays to help locate certain flowers and plants. Fruits and seeds look different to animals than they do to us. UV rays can help direct bees to the nectar of flowers based on the certain lines that appear on the petals.
- Treats Skin Condition - UV rays have been used to help treat skin conditions such as psoriasis.
- Sterilizes and Disinfects - Keeping things clean has never been more important, especially after everything that happened in 2020. UV rays are often used to destroy viruses and bacteria living on surfaces.
Cons of UV rays:
- Sunburn – Probably one of the more obvious downsides to UV rays is the effects it has on the skin. Our skin takes a hit when exposed to the sun for too long. In response to the damage, our body sends extra blood to the surface to repair it. That’s why our skin looks red when we get sunburn.
- Ages Skin Faster – Collagen is a protein that exists in the connective tissues of our skin. UV rays break down this collagen, and over time your skin loses elasticity. This is where fine lines and wrinkles come from.
- Eye Damage - While helpful for birds and insects, UV rays can actually damage your vision. High-intensity exposure can lead to what’s called “snow blindness”. While the effects usually go away after a few days, complications could show up later.
- Injures Your Immune System - Research suggests that your white blood cells can change after too much exposure to the sun. This can alter how effective they are in fighting off disease.
Taking the time to safely enjoy your summer will benefit you both now and later. Because August is Summer Sun Safety Month, here are some tips on ways you can keep yourself safe while spending time outdoors:
Slather on the Sunscreen
A cream or spray you can buy at just about any store, sunscreens have come a long way. Invented around the late 1930s, sunscreens were developed to help protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun.
Not all sun protection is created equal, however. Some are chemical sunscreens, and others are physical sunblock. According to Dr. Harvey, M.D., Piedmont dermatologist and surgeon (2), “Chemical sunscreen absorbs into the skin and then absorbs UV rays into heat, and releases them from the body… physical sunblock sits on top of the skin and reflects the sun’s rays.”
When looking for sunscreens or sunblock, consider the SPF you want to use. SPF stands for “Sun Protection Factor”. Numbers can range from 10 to 100: the higher the number, the more protection it offers.
One small caveat here: sunscreen should be reapplied every 2 hours, no matter the SPF.
If you’re going to be outside for a long period of time, The Skin Cancer Foundation (3) recommends using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Choosing a water-resistant option is even better.
Can’t Forget the Clothes
The idea of being fully clothed in the middle of summer might have you sweating already. It is, however, one way of protecting your skin against harmful UV rays. Some clothing ideas include:
- Hats - Broad-rimmed hats that cover your face and neck can offer shade from the sun. Some hats are designed with additional UV protection in them.
- Shirts - Long sleeve is best in this type of situation. Loose, breathable cotton is the best choice. Avoid wool or heavy fabrics.
- Pants - If you live in an area with mosquitos, this provides an additional benefit! Cotton will be your best bet, but denim will work just as well.
- Shoes - Flip-flops and sandals seem like the perfect addition to any summer outfit. But, you risk exposing the tops of your feet to the sun. Wearing full coverage shoes reduces this risk.
- Sunglasses - Don’t miss this important step! Remember, UV damage tends to be cumulative, meaning it builds up over time. When looking for a good pair of sunglasses, the Mayo Clinic (4) offers these suggestions:
- Screen out between 75% - 90% of visible light
- Block 99% - 100% of UV rays
- Are large and protect the whole eye area
During the summer months, the earth is tilted towards the sun. This means the rays will be stronger throughout the day. Peak heat and UV exposure tend to happen between the hours of 10 am and 2 pm, although some argue it extends to 5 pm.
Use this time to take care of what you need inside. Plan outdoor activities for after the hottest hours of the day.
Look Out For Location
If you happen to have a green thumb, consider planting trees or shrubs in areas where you like to hang out. Over time, these can provide shade during the intense UV hours.
You may also benefit from buying screens, tents and other fabrics you can hang above you. Some of these are built with additional UV protection.
Don’t Forget the Babies!
Little ones need skin protection, too. While the FDA doesn’t recommend slathering a ton of sunscreen on your infant or toddler due to the increased risk of developing a rash (5), here are some helpful tips:
- Keep infants under 6 months old out of direct sunlight
- Look for other shade options, such as a tree or umbrella
- Follow all other safety recommendations mentioned above (clothing, timing, location, etc)
The sun is a wonderful thing, and the world would not be the same without it. Ultraviolet (UV) rays are produced to help nature function properly. It helps insects find flowers, and humans stay happy.
Prolonged exposure to UV rays has downsides, though. It can hurt your immune system, break down the collagen in your skin, and even cause cancer.
There are many things you can do to stay safe while enjoying the summer months. Tips like wearing longer clothes, seeking shade, applying sunscreen all add up. Your health matters. Applying these tips can give you peace of mind while you go and enjoy that beautiful phenomenon we call the sun!