Summer officially arrives today at 10:58 am EDT, marking the summer solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the day of the year with the most sunlight (15 hours 7 minutes in southwestern Pennsylvania).
Dangers from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation are greatest during the summer when the days are longer and we spend more time outdoors. UV rays — both UVA and UVB — cause sunburns and are responsible for damaging DNA in skin cells, which leads to premature skin aging (dark patches, wrinkles, loose skin) and skin cancer. Of all the different types of cancer, skin cancer is the most common, according to the American Cancer Society:
More than 5 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States. That’s more than all other cancers combined. Skin cancer rates have been on the rise over the past few decades. The good news is that you can do a lot to protect yourself and your family from skin cancer.
While anyone can develop skin cancer over a lifetime, some people are more sensitive and need to take extra precautions to avoid intense sunlight. Individuals who are fair skinned, have freckles and have natural blond or red hair have a higher risk of skin damage from the sun. Spending a lot of time outdoors and having a history of frequent sunburns also increase skin cancer risk.
Applying a broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB rays is an essential tool for preventing sunburns, premature skin aging, and skin cancer, but it’s not the only tool. The sun’s impact is most intense between 10 am and 4 pm, so seeking the shade during those hours can help reduce exposure. Wearing clothing that covers the skin and a wide-brimmed hat also helps. Since the sun can also damage the eyes, wearing sunglasses with at least 99% UV protection helps prevent (or at least delay) the development of cataracts.
There is a strong consensus about what to look for when buying sunscreens:
• Choose a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which will protect against UVA and UVA rays.
• Use sunscreens and lip balms with SPF 30 or higher. SPF ratings higher than 50 don’t bring added benefits so they are not recommended.
• Water-resistant sunscreens are helpful for days spent at the beach, the pool, or under the sprinkler.
• Apply sunscreens early (by 10:00 am) and reapply often (every 2 hours).
• Use lotions containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, the only two ingredients that are generally recognized to be safe and effective by the Food and Drug Administration. These are especially useful in young children to cover sensitive areas like the nose, cheeks, tops of the ears, and shoulders.
• Check the expiration date (usually 2-3 years after purchase).
• Choose lotions over spray-on sunscreens. Inhaled particles and vapors in sprays can be dangerous. Lotions provide more uniform skin coverage than sprays.
• Avoid sunscreens with retinyl palmitate, retinol, or vitamin A.
• Avoid oxybenzone, an ingredient that can be absorbed through the skin and disrupt the body’s endocrine system.
• Don’t combine sunscreen with bug repellent. If using both, apply bug repellent first, then sunscreen.
So have fun this summer, but be careful out there!
Read more about sun safety from the American Academy of Pediatrics here.
Read Environmental Working Group’s annual “Guide to Sunscreens” here.