You’ve seen (or worse, experienced) a sunburn; a day of fun in the sun followed by intense red skin that can remain extremely sensitive for up to several days or even weeks before peeling. While this is uncomfortable and annoying, the real danger lies in the damage done to the skin which leads to premature aging of the skin and the increased potential for developing skin cancer.
While rates of many types of cancer are falling, melanoma – a common skin cancer – is not. In fact, the rate of skin cancer is continuing to rise at an astounding rate – faster than all 7 of the most common cancers. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS) approximately one American dies every hour from skin cancer. They expect more than 73,870 new cases of malignant melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, and more than two million new cases of basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers in the U.S. to be reported in 2019.
Although very common, skin cancer is also highly preventable! People can take simple steps to avoid sunburn and still enjoy the outdoors.
HOW DO I STAY SAFE IN THE SUN?
They don’t call it the “great outdoors” for nothing! Staying active often includes outdoor activities – and they can’t always be in the shade. Don’t associate sun protection only with going to the pool, lake, or special activities such as school field day. Remember that UV exposure is cumulative.
Each time you are in the sun, your exposure adds to the previous time, which adds to the time before that and so on. Therefore, it is important to utilize sun protection every day. The good news is that there are a number of ways this can be accomplished!
In 1981, the Australian Cancer Council Victoria launched the “Slip! Slop! Slap!®” campaign to encourage people to protect themselves against skin cancer, and now the internationally recognized program is used in other countries, including the US, with the addition of “and Wrap” highlighting four key steps to sun protection:
Slip on a shirt or cover-up.
The best protection is to simply cover the skin. Be aware – not all clothing provides the same UV protection. In most cases, dark colors provide better protection than light colors. A tighter weave will protect better than a looser weave. If you can see light through the fabric – then UV rays can get through as well. Dry fabric tends to be more protective than wet fabric. Some clothing companies now make clothing with specific sun protection factors (SPF) on the label for work, play and the water.
Slop on sunscreen.
Sunscreens come in many forms including lotion, cream, gel, spray, wipes and even lip balms and make-up. Keep in mind that sunscreen is merely a filter – NOT a total block (even if some call it “sunblock”). Therefore, you should not rely solely on sunscreen. The ACS recommends “broad spectrum protection (against both UVA and UVB rays) and with SPF values of 30 or higher.”
Be sure you are using the sunscreen properly. Most labels recommend applying “generously.” A thin layer may not be enough. Be especially careful applying it to face, ears, neck, arms and any other areas not covered by clothing. Don’t forget behind the ears, the back of the knees, or other places you don’t see when you look down at yourself. Sunscreen should be applied before make-up, insect repellent, etc.
READ the labels! No sunscreen is completely “waterproof” or “sweatproof”. On the label the manufacturer will state how long that product provides protection based on testing. When you reach that time, you must reapply in order to continue to be protected. Swimming, sweating or wiping off with a towel can all remove sunscreen from your body. Therefore, you may need to reapply more frequently.
Don’t be fooled. Some think that using a higher SPF will enable them to get the same protection while using less, staying in the sun longer or not reapplying. None of these is true! Also, keep a watch on the expiration date. Most products will be good for 2-3 years. However, sunscreen kept in the car exposed to high temps for long periods of time may be less effective.
Slap on a hat.
Not all hats are created equal when it comes to sun protection. A baseball cap can protect the scalp and face, but leave the ears and neck exposed. Those are 2 areas that are especially prone to the development of skin cancers. Hats with a 2-3-inch brim all the way around the head are best as this will shade ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp – areas that can be especially sensitive and also hard to protect.
Dark, non-reflective color on the underside of the brim will reduce reflection from surfaces such as water, snow or sand. Another good option is a shade cap. This looks like a baseball cap, but has about 7 inches of fabric that shades the sides and back providing that missing protection to the ears and neck. You can make a DIY shade cap by wearing a large bandana, handkerchief or other fabric under a baseball cap.
Wrap on sunglasses to protect the eyes and skin around them.
Sunglasses provide protection to both the eyes themselves as well as the fragile skin around them. As with sunscreen, there are different levels of protection available from sunglasses. Look for labels that say “UV absorption up to 400 nm” or “Meets ANSI UV Requirements”. These are the best in that they filter at least 99% of UV rays.
Sunglasses labeled “cosmetic” filter about 70% of UV rays. You cannot base protection on the color of the glasses. UV protection comes from an invisible chemical in or applied to the lenses. Dark does not mean more protection. Look for the ANSI label. If you don’t see a label, it’s best to assume there is NO UV protection. Wearing large-framed or wraparound sunglasses provides protection from multiple angles. Even for children, look for the label. They need small versions of what the adults are wearing, not a toy.
Whether your summer plans include time at the beach, sightseeing, relaxing at the pool or grilling out and playing ball with friends, don’t let a day of fun in the sun, put your future health in jeopardy. “Slip! Slop! Slap!® and Wrap” is a great way to remember your sun protection this summer and all year long. Go ahead and enjoy that big amusement water park. Play ball, shoot fireworks, and show off your mad grilling skills. Just be sure it’s your food that gets cooked and not your skin!
National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. https://www.skincancerprevention.org/programs/dont-fry-day
Sun Safety Tips for Families. Centers for Disease Control. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/sun-safety-tips-families.htm
How Do I Protect Myself from UV Rays? American Cancer Society https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer/prevention-and-early-detection/uv-protection.html
Sunburn and Skin Cancer Facts. SKCIN: The Karen Clifford Skin Cancer Charity. http://www.skcin.org/skinCancerInformation/sunburnTheFacts.htm
UV Index Scale. Environmental Protection Agency. https://www.epa.gov/sunsafety/uv-index-scale-0