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Are you taking the right steps to protect your family from skin cancer?
It’s summer and you and your family are probably spending a lot more time enjoying the outdoors. Whether you’re at the beach or pool, working in the garden, or enjoying a leisurely walk around the neighborhood, there’s one thing you should always do before you step outside—take steps to protect your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays to help lower your risk of skin cancer.
Too much exposure to the UV rays in sunlight (and in tanning beds and sun lamps) can cause damage on a cellular level and increase your risk of developing skin cancer, the most common type of cancer. Data from the American Cancer Society projects that 5.4 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers and 99,780 new melanomas will be diagnosed this year. UV exposure can also increase your risk of serious eye diseases including macular degeneration and cataracts and weaken your immune system, so protecting your skin and your eyes is important.
There are three types of UV rays—UVA, UVB, and UVC. Here’s what you need to know about each type:
- UVA rays are the weakest of the three. That doesn’t mean they can’t cause harm, however. They can cause skin aging, as well as some indirect damage to the DNA in your cells, which can increase skin cancer risk.
- UVB rays are stronger than UVA ones. These rays cause sunburns and can directly damage DNA. Researchers have linked the damage caused by UVB rays to most cases of skin cancer.
- UVC rays are the strongest type of ultraviolet radiation, but they don’t reach the ground. They can be produced by manmade sources like arc welders and UV sanitizing bulbs, so people in industries where they may be exposed to UVC rays need to use protective clothing and eyewear.
The sun’s UVA and UVB rays vary in strength depending on:
- Time of day: They’re strongest between 10 am and 4 pm.
- Season: They’re stronger in the spring and summer, though you still need to protect yourself in the fall and winter.
- How close you are to the equator: The farther away you are, the weaker UV rays are.
- Your elevation: UV rays are stronger at higher altitudes, which is one reason it’s easy to get sunburned while skiing.
- Reflective surfaces: UV rays bounce off water, snow, sand, and pavement, increasing your exposure.
How to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging UV rays
The goal is to limit your exposure to UV radiation and there are several ways to do that:
- Wear clothing that covers your skin: Darkly colored, tightly woven fabrics provide the best protection. There are lightweight UV-protectant clothes available, so you don’t have to sweat through the summer while keeping your skin safer. Remember to keep your head covered with a wide-brimmed hat as well and wearing sunglasses that block UV rays. They should have a tag that says they meet ANSI UV requirements.
- Avoid the strongest rays: As much as possible, limit the amount of time you’re outside when the sun’s rays are strongest (10 am to 4pm). Before you head outside, check how strong UV rays are on the EPA’s UV index.
- Make sunscreen an everyday habit: About 15 minutes before going outside, apply sunscreen to all areas of your body that will be exposed. You need about 1 ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill a shot glass) to cover your legs, arms, neck, and face, more if you’re shirtless or in a bathing suit. Reapply sunscreen every two hours or more often if you’re sweating a lot or in the water. It’s also wise to protect your lips with a lip balm that contains sunscreen.
Choosing a sunscreen can be confusing. There are thousands of different types on the market, so how can you decide which one is the best option for you? Here’s what to look for:
- Broad spectrum protection that blocks both UVA and UVB rays
- An SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. SPF is calculated by figuring out how long it takes for skin treated with the sunscreen to burn compared to untreated skin. Is a higher SPF sunscreen better? Most researchers have found that the increase in protection for sunscreens with an SPF of more than 50 is very small.
- Water resistance. Sunscreens are rated as water resistant for up to 40 or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating.
You may also want to consider whether you’d prefer a physical or chemical sunblock. Both protect your skin, but a physical sunscreen does so by sitting on top of the skin and scattering UV rays, while chemical sunscreens create a chemical reaction and change UV rays into heat and release that heat from your skin. Both provide about the same level of protection when applied properly.