Here Comes the Sun! Are You Ready for It?
The American Cancer Society designates the Friday before Memorial Day as “Don’t Fry Day.” This clever title serves as a reminder that sunburn season is officially here. It’s time to think about protecting our skin from the harmful rays that raise our risk of skin cancer.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S. Nearly five million people each year are treated for skin cancer, and 9,000 people die from melanoma, the deadliest form.
But many skin cancers can be prevented! Although sun can damage our skin even on a cloudy day, the danger is greatest when the sun is out. So before you head out to the beach, golf course, or even gardening in the yard, review these sun safety tips:
Be a shade seeker. Stay in shady places, especially during the sunniest hours—late morning through early afternoon. Relax under a tree, or bring a nice, big beach umbrella along on that trip to the shore.
Dress for sun protection success! This includes:
- Clothing that covers your arms and legs.
- A hat with a wide brim to shade your face and neck. (FYI from the CDC: baseball caps leave your neck and ears vulnerable to burning.)
- Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays.
Wear sunscreen. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) warns that many Americans fail to use sunscreen regularly. Says dermatologist Dr. Ingrid Policari, “Everyone should apply sunscreen every time they go outside. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun’s harmful UV rays can reach your skin.” The AAD also reminds us to use enough sunscreen—about one ounce or a shot glass-sized amount should do the trick. And remember it wears off. Reapply it every two hours— sooner after swimming or if you’re sweating.
The CDC tells consumer what to look for on sunscreen labels:
- SPF (sun protection factor). The higher the number, the greater the level of protection. The CDC recommends a minimum of SPF 15. (The AAD suggests SPF 30.)
- Broad spectrum protection. This means your sunscreen will protect against both UVA and UVB rays, which together cause premature aging, sunburn, and skin cancer.
- Expiration date. It may not be as effective after that date has passed; the CDC says if your sunscreen has been exposed to high temperatures, that also might decrease its effectiveness.
- Water resistance. If you will be swimming, chose a sunscreen with ingredients that help it stay on longer in the water.
Q: Can you take a pill to protect your skin?
The answer is no. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration reports that some unscrupulous companies are selling pills and capsules which they claim can protect us from sunburn and skin cancer. Said former Commissioner of Food and Drugs Scott Gottlieb, “Consumers should be watchful for unscrupulous companies making unproven claims. There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”
Q: What about other medications?
Though pills can’t protect us against sunburn, some medications can make sunburn worse! Those include NSAIDs such as ibuprofen, certain topical acne medications, antihistamines and certain antibiotics. Even certain herbal supplements can have that effect, most notably St. John’s wort. Ask your doctor or pharmacist if this might be a side effect of the medicines you take.
Q: What about vitamin D?
There has been much coverage about vitamin D deficiency during the past few years. Our bodies manufacture vitamin D when sunlight hits our skin, and some experts have expressed concern that using sunscreen might decrease our bodies’ production of this important substance. This topic is still being debated. A May 2019 study from the British Journal of Dermatology suggests that even when we’re wearing sunscreen, we gain this positive benefit of sun exposure. Said Prof. Antony Young of King’s College London, “Our study, during a week of perfect weather in Tenerife, showed that sunscreens, even when used optimally to prevent sunburn, allowed excellent vitamin D synthesis.” Research continues that will help us further understand this issue.
Bottom line: Use sunscreen and talk to your doctor about your sun exposure, skin cancer risk and vitamin D levels.