With summer in full swing, it’s the perfect time to head outdoors and enjoy the sunny weather. But are you protecting yourself from potential risks connected to UV rays? The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has named July as Ultraviolet (UV) Safety Month. The goal is to spread the word about how important it is to protect everyone’s skin from the harmful effects of UV rays.
What Is UV Radiation?
By definition, radiation is the emission of energy from any source—the main source of UV radiation is the sun, although it can come from man-made sources such as tanning beds and welding torches. Radiation exists across a spectrum from very high energy, such as x-rays and gamma rays, to very low energy, such as radio waves.
The sun emits radiation in the form of UV light, which is classified into three types by wavelength: UVA, UVB, and UVC. Exposure to both UVA and UVB are associated with the development of skin cancer, so it is important to protect the skin during exposure to sunlight.
How to Protect the Skin From UV Radiation
Fortunately, there are measures to minimize the risks that come with sun exposure.
1. Block UV light with protective clothing and eyewear.
This includes wearing a hat (preferably wide brimmed) as well as shade-protective clothing. This can partly shield the skin from the harmful effects of UV ray exposure. The American Academy of Ophthalmology notes that many forget to wear sunglasses that have a label that says it protects 99% of UV radiation for eye protection.
2. Stay in the shade, especially when UV radiation is most intense at midday between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm.
The sun can still damage the skin on cloudy days or in the winter, so year-round protection is important. Use caution when near reflective surfaces, like water, snow, and sand, which can reflect the damaging rays of the sun. This can increase the chance of sunburn, even in areas that appear to be shaded.
3. Choose the right sunscreen and apply it correctly.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration's regulations for sunscreen labeling recommend that the sunscreen have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15, and it should protect against both UVA and UVB radiation. According to the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention, most people apply only 25%–50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen. When out in the sun, apply at least one ounce (a palmful) of sunscreen every two hours. It should be applied more often when sweating or swimming, even if the sunscreen is waterproof.
4. Stay away from sources of artificial UV light.
There is no such thing as a safe tan. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stress that indoor tanning significantly increases the risk of developing melanoma, basal, and squamous cell cancers. It also causes premature aging of the skin and suppresses the immune system.
5. When planning outdoor activities, information about how much sun protection is needed is available at the Environmental Protection Agency's UV index.
The index measures the daily intensity of UV rays from the sun on a scale of 1–11. A low UV index requires minimal protection, whereas a high UV index requires maximum protection.
6. Knowing your risk of skin cancer is crucial.
Annual dermatology checkups are important!
While being in the sun can offer some health benefits, such as an uptake in vitamin D, it is important to talk to your health care provider about any particular risks you might face regarding exposure. And remember, be smart in the sun!