While we all like to have some fun in the sun, we also know that too much sun exposure can be harmful. Unprotected exposure to the sun's rays can lead to a variety of skin health issues, including wrinkles, discoloration, sunburn, and even skin cancer.
If you're worried about long-term sun damage and are wondering how to prevent skin cancer, consider the following tips to protect your skin and your health.
Understanding UV Rays and Skin Cancer
You've probably heard that UV rays are the major culprit behind skin cancer. Although you can't see them, UV light can penetrate your skin and damage the DNA in your skin cells. If enough damage builds up, your skin cells may start to divide and grow uncontrollably, which can lead to cancer, according to Cleveland Clinic.
There are two main types of UV rays from the sun—UVA and UVB. Even though UVA and UVB rays affect your skin differently, both can cause skin cancer.
The bulk of the sun's UV rays are UVA. These rays seep deeper into the skin and are responsible for sun-related skin damage such as fine lines, wrinkles, and brown spots, all making your skin appear older. UVA rays are present year-round, all day, and in all weather. They are not to be taken lightly; these rays can even sneak through windows and thin clothing.
Although UVB rays make up just 5 percent of the sun's light, they have more energy than UVA rays. That's why they are known as the "burning" rays. These rays can hurt the outer layer of the skin and cause painful sunburns after high exposure.
Exposure to both types of rays adds up over your lifetime, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). Putting it simply, whenever you spend unprotected time in the sun, the rays damage your skin. As it accumulates, that damage can make your skin age faster and increase your risk for skin cancer.
Using Proper Sunscreen Daily
One of the simplest ways to reduce your risk for skin cancer is to use sunscreen daily, no matter the season or weather. Though you may not feel the sun as strongly on gray, overcast days, you still need to wear sunscreen. Believe it or not, up to 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can make their way through the clouds to your skin.
But not just any sun protection product will do. Make sure to look for a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays. And you'll want to choose a product that is water-resistant and labeled SPF 30 or higher. No sunscreen is 100 percent waterproof or sweatproof but properly applied water-resistant sunscreen will shield you for 40 to 80 minutes while swimming. It will also protect you from sweating off the sunscreen while exercising outside.
Don't be shy when applying sunscreen. The average person needs to apply about an ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen approximately 15 to 30 minutes before heading outside. This will give the product's sun-shielding properties time to kick in. Don't forget easy-to-miss areas like your ears, behind your knees, and the tops of your feet. Protect exposed skin when you head out for a run or even a trip to the grocery store.
Remember—sunscreen isn't a "set it and forget it" product. Over time, sunscreen wears off. The AAD recommends reapplying sunscreen every two hours and after swimming. Frequently touching up your sunscreen can provide the extra protection you need against sun damage and skin cancer.
How to Reduce Skin Cancer Risk
Daily sunscreen is an important way to protect against UV rays, but protecting yourself from skin cancer calls for a comprehensive approach. Consider the following tips:
- Avoid Peak Periods: UV rays are typically strongest in the late morning through mid-afternoon, between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m., says the American Cancer Society. Planning your outdoor chores and workouts in the early morning or evening can help keep you cool and cut down intense exposure. You can also check the UV index for your area before heading outside. It can tell you how strong the UV rays are. The higher the number, the higher the risk of UV exposure. If you are outside during peak hours, reapply your sunscreen more often.
- Stay in the Shade: An umbrella, a tree, an awning—they all provide relief from the sun but aren't foolproof sun protection. Be sure to wear sunscreen, too.
- Dress to Protect: Long-sleeved shirts, pants, and a wide brim hat can take some of the sting out of the sun's harsh rays. Look for darker colors and tightly woven fabrics for better protection. Some clothing is also labeled with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating, which tells you how much of the sun's rays the fabric blocks.
- Pay Attention to Your Surroundings: UV light bounces off of everything from water to snow to sand, sometimes intensifying the rays, so take extra care to wear appropriate sun protection in these environments. Location matters, too. The sun is stronger closer to the equator, and UV radiation ramps up at higher elevations, increasing 10 to 12 percent with every 1,000 meters of altitude.
- Wear Sunglasses: Sunlight can cause problems for your eyes as well as your skin. But don't just look for dark sunglasses. The FDA recommends wearing sunglasses with a 100 percent UVA/UVB rating for the best protection against the sun's damaging rays.
- Visit Your Dermatologist: Your Dermatologist is one of the best resources you have for maintaining skin health. Given that early detection is key to treating skin cancer, schedule an annual skin exam with your Dermatologist. They can check for abnormal moles or anything out of the ordinary.
Protecting your skin from cancer isn't too complicated, but does take some planning and awareness. Forming good sun care habits now can save you a world of worry in the future—and as always, talk to your Dermatologist if you have any questions.