One of the best parts of living in Idaho is access to the great outdoors. As we spend time outside this summer (still the safest place to gather with COVID cases on the rise), we want to make sure we take appropriate measures for sun protection.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, but also a preventable one. One out of five Americans will develop a skin cancer in their lifetime and the most preventable risk factor is protection from harmful UV rays.
There are two types of UV rays. UV-A rays have longer wavelength and can reach the middle layer of the skin, which can lead to skin aging. UV-B rays have shorter wavelength and reach the outer layer of the skin, leading to sunburn. Both can increase risk of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. UV rays can reach the skin even on cloudy days.
Excessive exposure to the sun can lead to sunburn, wrinkles, aging spots, and skin cancers. Even a tan can be a sign of skin damage from the sun. We can protect ourselves from the sun by wearing sun protective clothing, seeking shade, and applying sunscreen to areas not covered by clothing.
Lightweight long sleeved shirts and pants and a wide brimmed hat are simple ways to protect your skin. Dry clothing will protect against UV rays better than wet clothes. Some clothing is labeled as having ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF. Check sunglass labels to ensure the lenses offer UV protection. Don’t forget your feet can be exposed if wearing flip-flops or going barefoot.
For areas not protected by clothing, apply sunscreen. There are two types of sunscreen, physical barrier sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens sit on the surface of the skin and shield from UV rays. Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are the two active ingredients to look for. Chemical sunscreens absorb harmful UV rays. They do not leave as much of a coating on the skin, but can be more irritating for people with sensitive skin. It takes approximately 15 minutes for these sunscreens to be absorbed and provide protection. Select a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or greater. Sunscreen does need to be applied every two hours or after it may have been washed away by sweating or swimming. Even water resistant sunscreens are not waterproof. The amount of sunscreen needed to cover the exposed areas of skin is about one ounce, or the amount in one shot glass. Do not forget the face, ears, and top of the feet. Sunscreen should be used year round and using sunscreen will not prevent you from getting the amount of Vitamin D most people need.
Children younger than six months should be protected with shade, long sleeves, pants, hats, and sunglasses. Avoid sunscreen before six months of age. In children over six months, we recommend using the physical sunscreens which are gentler on the skin.
And if you do get a sunburn? Make sure to stay hydrated and drink plenty of water. Take cool baths or showers, then pat skin dry and apply a moisturizer. Aloe Vera containing moisturizers can help soothe skin. If you are able to take anti-inflammatories, these can decrease swelling and discomfort. Avoid popping blisters that appear on sunburned skin.
The American Academy of Dermatology website is a great resource for more information on sunscreen and skin cancer.
As we spend time outside this summer and every summer, let’s take measures to decrease our risk of skin cancer.