Many of us love summer’s longer days, outdoor fun, gardening opportunities and yummy barbecues. What it also brings — especially welcome in the Pacific Northwest — is sunshine!
Natural sunshine has many benefits. It provides the body with vitamin D so it can better absorb calcium for strong bones. It makes flowers and plants grow and may even improve your mood. While sunlight is great for many reasons, it is not all good news.
Sunlight also contains ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can cause wrinkles, sunspots and, worst of all, skin cancer. UV rays can pierce through heavy cloud coverage and even your clothes. When skin is exposed to UV rays, it can be sunburned and suffer other damage.
Over time, your skin accumulates sun damage, which increases your risk for skin cancer. People with light hair and light eyes are most at risk for sunburn and skin cancer, but people with dark skin can also get sun damage and, in rare cases, skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed each year. People of all ages are affected; in fact, a type of skin cancer called melanoma is the most common form of cancer for young adults 25 to 29 years old.
Sun damage can look like freckles, age spots, wrinkles, yellowed skin or blood vessels under the skin. Be sure that your primary-care provider monitors any changes in your skin at your yearly physical examination. If you have a mole or lesion that changes size, shape or color, make a special appointment with your primary-care provider to examine it, as this may be an early sign of skin cancer.
Here are some ways to help protect yourself from sunburn and sun damage. If possible, avoid sun exposure when the sun is at its strongest, from about 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you are outside during those hours, seek shade, perhaps under an umbrella or a shaded patio.
Whenever you plan to be in the sun, be sure to apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before you go outside. Use SPF 30 or higher, and apply it to all exposed skin, paying special attention to the scalp, top of the head or the part in your hair, the tops of feet, your ears and shoulders.
Reapply every two hours or more frequently if you are swimming, sweating profusely or doing anything else that would wash or wipe sunscreen off your skin.
Also keep in mind that the FDA updated sunscreen regulations in 2012. The highest rating is now SPF 50, and sunscreen may only be labeled “water-resistant” or “sweat-resistant” (instead of “waterproof” or “sweat-proof”). These changes were made to better reflect how sunscreens perform in real-world situations, not just the lab.
Other options, in addition to sunscreen, can help protect you from the sun. Your eyes can also accumulate sun damage, so be sure to wear sunglasses or contacts that offer UV protection.
Many synthetic fabrics now offer UV protection as well, which can be a great solution for kids who want to play outside all day and don’t want to come inside to reapply sunscreen. Some cosmetics and face creams also offer SPF protection and can be great for daily use.
Whether you are planning to spend your summer days at Alki Beach, in the Cascades or on Lake Union, the good news is that the sun doesn’t need to be your enemy. Find shade, wear your sunscreen and take precautions so you will have a fun, sun-safe summer.
BRENDA STAVISH, ARNP, practices family medicine at Pacific Medical Centers (www.PacMed.org).
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