July 6, 2023

Sun Protection: Not Just Sunscreen

General Health

Summer is here, and for many of us that means longer days outside in the sun. Being out in the sun can be tremendous fun, but it can be healthy, too! Sun exposure can enhance your mood, improve sleep, and relieve stress. Unsafe sun exposure, however, can have long-lasting consequences, including skin cancer, lip cancer, and cataracts. 

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Around 90% of skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. Skin cancer can develop over a lifetime, so being vigilant about sun exposure is critical. Protecting yourself can greatly reduce the risk of developing cancer at any age. No one can avoid the sun completely (and we wouldn’t recommend it anyways), so take these steps to protect yourself from the sun. 

First Thing First: Sunscreen

Sunscreen is often the first thing you think of when talking about sun protection. Sunscreen protects your skin by absorbing, reflecting, and scattering the sun’s rays. When choosing a sunscreen, look for water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. SPF stands for sun protection factor, and the higher the number, the better your sunscreen will defend against sun damage. 

Also choose a sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum.” Skin damage happens because the sun emits radiation called UV (ultraviolet) rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC rays. UVC rays are absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere, but UVA and UVB rays damage our skin’s inner and outer layers. Broad-spectrum sunscreen protects you from both. 

Don’t wait until you’re outside to apply sunscreen. Sunscreen works best when given 15 to 30 minutes to soak in. Pick lotion, gel, or spray sunscreens depending on your preference. They all work—what matters is how much and how often you apply.  Sunscreen wears off, so reapply it at least every 2 hours, more often if you’re active or swimming. 

Don’t forget your scalp, ears, neck, and lips! SPF lip balms are available for your lips’ thin and sensitive skin. 

Shake sunscreen before using it. And keep an eye on expiration dates. Don’t use sunscreens that have expired. If one brand irritates your skin, try another, such as one without fragrance.

Seek Shade (or Make Your Own!)

If you’re out at a picnic or barbeque, it’s better to sit under a tree or an awning than out in the sun. If you know you’re going somewhere without shade, like a beach or a park, or even just out for a walk, remember to bring an umbrella or parasol. Watch the clock. Be extra careful when the sun’s rays are at their strongest, between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. 

Consider changing your outdoor plans based on the UV index, which can alert you to how dangerous the sun is on any given day. The UV Index is a forecast of the expected risk of overexposure to UV radiation from the sun. Your risk isn’t limited to sunny days, either. Some cloudy days can create higher UV levels than sunny blue skies. Look up your local UV forecast at EPA.gov

Wear Protective Clothing

Unlike sunscreen, which has to be applied throughout the day, protective clothing provides protection that lasts. Cover as much of your skin as possible when spending time outdoors. Protective clothing is made with tightly woven fabrics in dark or bright colors. Denser colors and tightly woven fabrics provide less room for UV rays to breach and damage the skin. 

Think comfort—wear loose-fitting (but tightly woven!) shirts and pants and skip the sweatshirts and jeans. Keep an extra sun shirt or jacket in your car so you’ll have sun protection on hand if you suddenly decide to spend time outdoors.

UPF clothing like swimsuits, rash guards, and everyday outfits are available widely across a variety of retailers. UPF stands for Ultraviolet Protection Factor, a measurement of sun protection similar to SPF. A garment of UPF 50+ will allow less than 2% of UV rays through, and clothing must have a UPF of 30 or above to be recommended by the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Accessories matter, too. Protect your head and eyes with a canvas hat that has a brim at least three inches wide (straw hats have too many holes), as well as sunglasses with UV protection. Lenses that appear dark may not provide that protection, so read the label. Large-framed or wraparound sunglasses protect better than smaller frames. Don’t forget the sunscreen on your feet if you’re barefoot or wearing sandals, or wear walking shoes or water shoes that cover the tops of your feet.

Be Thoughtful About Medicines and Supplements

Some medications, even over-the-counter ones, can increase your sun-sensitivity, or photosensitivity. If you’ve experienced extreme reactions to sun exposure, your medications may be a factor. Medications that can cause a reaction to sunlight include antihistamines; antiarthritics, like ibuprofen; some contraceptives; sulfa drugs; antibiotics, like doxycycline; and some antidepressants. If you’re experiencing sunburn-like symptoms, a rash, or other unusual side effects from sun exposure, your medications could be playing apart. Talk to your doctor about any concerns.. 

Some supplements might improve your sun protection, like B3 nicotinamide, which in one study had a 30% reduction in skin cancers. Always consult your physician before taking new supplements. Some supplements can interfere with medications, and too much of one supplement can do more harm than good. If you have a condition you think supplements will improve, bring it up at your next wellness visit.

Talk to Your Doctor

Your doctor is your best resource. If you’re worried about sun damage or simply want to know more, talk to your primary care physician or schedule an appointment with a dermatologist. Fort HealthCare Dermatology provides a free walk-in clinic every Wednesday from 12:30 – 2:00 PM at Fort Memorial Hospital where you can get your skin screened for cancer or talk to a physician about your concerns. For more information, appointments, and resources, call (920) 568-1000. 

Feel Prepared?

The more you know about sun protection, the better you are protected. You can greatly reduce your risk of skin cancer by following these simple tips every day. Think you remember them all? Take the Summer Sun Exposure Quiz and find out what you need to refresh on before heading out to the ballpark or community pool.

You can find more resources about skin conditions and aging, protective measures and treatments, and the skin itself at our Health Library

Now go out and enjoy the sun, but safely!