It’s May and we all know what that means: neighborhood pools will be opening soon, and many people will be heading outdoors or to the beach for Memorial Day weekend. That means it’s time for a quick refresher on how to stay safe in the summer sun.
Learning from past mistakes
I recently participated in a Mindful Triathlon (it was awesome – look for one in your area here). It was an outdoor event at a local park from early morning to mid-afternoon. Before I left the house, I applied sunscreen to my face, but since it was still a little chilly, I dressed in layers with most of my body covered and protected from the sun. I knew that I might shed layers as the day warmed up though, so I threw the bottle of sunscreen in my backpack. Around mid-morning when we moved into the yoga portion of the event, I removed my outer layer, but I failed to apply any sunscreen on my chest, back and other exposed areas. I thought about it briefly, but I rationalized that it was still early, and the sun’s rays weren’t that intense.
Wrong. The reddish hint of a minor sunburn later that day reminded me just how powerful the sun is…and why it’s so important to protect our skin. I have had my fair share of sunburns. One of the worst was just after I graduated college and spent the day at a beach volleyball tournament under a blazing hot sun. I applied sunscreen that morning but failed to reapply throughout the day. The result was a nasty sunburn that to this day, I believe has increased my sensitivity to being in the sun. I have also had a few “atypical moles” removed, which had the potential to turn into skin cancer. I know several people who have died from melanoma, so I am recommitting myself to follow these basic recommendations to help protect myself and my family.
Keys to protection
According to the CDC, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. One of the best things you can do is avoid being in the sun altogether, but none of us want to hide inside all summer. Instead, follow these recommendations to limit your exposure and reduce your risk when you do spend time in the sun.
- Seek shade, especially late morning through mid-afternoon. This includes 10 am to 4 pm, during peak spring and summer days. Umbrellas, trees, or other shelters can provide relief from the sun.
- Wear a hat, sunglasses and other clothes to protect skin. Protective clothing can reduce your burn risk by 27%. Sunglasses are essential to protect your eyes from UV radiation. They are also important to wear around surfaces that reflect the sun’s rays, like snow, sand, water, and concrete.
- Use broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher to protect any exposed skin. Apply a thick layer at least 15 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours and after swimming, sweating, and/or toweling off. For help in choosing safe and effective sunscreens, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens. A quick note about high SPF labels: anything higher than SPF 50 can tempt you to stay in the sun too long. Even if you don’t burn, your skin may be damaged. It is best to stick to an SPF between 15 and 50.
- Remember that sunburns and skin damage can occur even on cloudy or overcast days. Thus, the above recommendations are still relevant even if the sun is not completely visible in the sky.
Skin cancer screening
Finally, as hard as we may try to protect ourselves from skin damage, we are human and likely to forget the protective clothing and/or sunscreen now and then. Therefore, being evaluated by a dermatologist once a year and checking your skin regularly are two excellent steps you can take to catch melanoma and other types of skin cancer early. The sooner skin cancer is found, the better the chances are of curing it.
It’s important to be familiar with your skin and report any changes to your dermatologist right away. Get into the habit of checking your skin once a month. Look for new moles appearing that haven’t been there before. You can also use the simple ABC guidelines to monitor for changes that may be of concern:
A is for asymmetry: one half of a mole looks different from the other half.
B is for border: the borders of a mole are uneven, jagged or scalloped.
C is for color: the color of a mole is different from one area to another.
It’s also important to note a mole’s size. If you have a mole larger than about a quarter of an inch across (about the size of a pencil eraser), have it checked. If there is a change in the size, shape, color or height of a mole, or if you develop symptoms such as bleeding, itching or tenderness, that should be evaluated, as well.
Being proactive and following the recommendations to reduce your exposure to the sun will still allow you to enjoy the great outdoors this summer and throughout the year. Be safe, be smart and have fun!