When you take a trip to the beach, one of the top items on your packing list is probably sunscreen. After all, you’ll be basking in the sun all day. But whether you’re outside for a full-day event or just for a quick walk around the block, too much sun exposure is not good for your skin. It can cause painful sunburns, and excessive sun exposure over time increases your risks of skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer and is mostly caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which comes from direct exposure to sunlight. You could also have an increased risk of skin cancers due to family history, having fair skin or eyes, or a history of sunburns. But even if you’re at a higher risk, there are simple ways you can protect your skin in addition to applying sunscreen.
Ways to protect your skin from sun damage
Be choosy about your sunscreen or sunblock
You know that wearing sunscreen or sunblock is important. But here are some key tips to consider when choosing a sunscreen and how to use it for maximum protection from the sun:
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen for the best overall protection from UVA and UVB rays.
- Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are two of the best and safest sunscreen ingredients if you have sensitive skin or are applying sunscreen on your children.
- Make sure the sun protection factor (SPF) is 30 or greater. This will protect against harmful UV rays, which cause you to burn.
- Reapply your sunscreen often, which includes when you are in the sun for more than two hours and after swimming, sweating or toweling off. A sunscreen that is labeled as “water resistant” will only work for 40-80 minutes while in the water and will need to be reapplied after.
- Be cautious of spray sunscreens. There are some concerns about the safety of inhaling sunscreen, and it can be difficult to tell how much is applied to the skin. If using a spray sunscreen, make sure you rub the spray into your skin to ensure an even coat.
- Check the expiration date. If you still have tubes of sunscreen from seasons past, you might be okay. The FDA requires sunscreen to retain its original strength for three years. If a sunscreen has a funny smell or texture, throw it out.
If you can, cover up with long sleeve shirts, pants or skirts. Clothing made with tightly woven fabric that you can’t see through offers the best sun protection. Dark clothing will also block more sun than light. And though it might be difficult when near water, keep your clothes dry to maintain maximum UV protection.
You can also find clothing made with specific materials to protect you from UV rays. Sun protection on clothing is measured using UPF, which stands for ultraviolet protection factor. Typical clothing usually only has a UPF of 10 or lower, but local Minnesota company Coolibar makes lightweight, breathable clothes with UPF 50+ protection. Another option is Sun Guard, a laundry aid that adds sun protection to regular clothes in the wash.
Your feet need protection, too! While going barefoot or wearing flip-flops are the convenient choices when you’re at the beach or pool, a sandal that covers your whole foot will provide better protection when you’re not in the water.
For babies younger than six months old, avoid using sunscreen. Instead, use clothing, hats, sunglasses and shade to protect your baby's delicate skin.
Wear sun protection hats
Avoid sun damage to your face and prevent premature aging of the skin by protecting your face with a full-brimmed hat. These types of hats will cover your face as well as your ears and back of your neck. Choose a hat with canvas material for added UV protection. If you only have a baseball cap available, place a small towel or bandana underneath the hat to provide more coverage. It's also best to avoid hats with holes, like a straw hat, that allow sunlight through.
Use sun umbrellas
A sun umbrella is also a good choice to achieve sun protection. Use a small, lightweight sun umbrella if you’re going to walk a lot. Or find a larger umbrella to set up in your backyard or at the beach to provide sun coverage for multiple people.
While a hat or umbrella will provide shade, wearing sunglasses provides your eyes with additional protection from UV rays, which can contribute to cataracts. Sunglasses will also protect the skin around your eyes, which is some of the thinnest skin on your body – it can be easily damaged by the sun. Plus, sunglasses reduce eye strain and can possibly reduce instances of migraines and headaches.
Limit your exposure to the sun
Perhaps the simplest way to prevent prolonged exposure to UV rays is to stay out of the sun. It’s best to limit your time in the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when sun rays are the strongest. If your shadow is shorter than you, that means you are in peak sun time.
You can also check the local UV index, which measures the expected strength of ultraviolet rays that day on a scale from 1 – 11(+). The higher the number, the higher the radiation. Try to limit time in the sun when the UV Index is 3 or higher. When possible, seek shade.
But you can still get sunburned when it’s cloudy or cold. The strength of UV rays determines how likely you are to get a sunburn – not the air temperature. Though UV rays are strongest in the summer, the sun is still powerful enough in the winter to damage your skin. And when it’s cloudy, up to 90% of UV rays can still reach your skin through a light cloud cover.
So don’t be fooled when you look out the window. Whether cloudy or cold, if you’re going to be outdoors for long periods of time, it’s still important to protect yourself from the sun.
Be cautious of medications that make you sensitive to the sun
Medications can make your skin more sensitive to the sun (called photosensitivity), leading to a higher chance of sunburn, rashes and other skin damage. Medications that contribute to sun sensitivity include some antibiotics, NSAIDs like naproxen (Aleve, Naprosyn), some acne medications like Accutane, certain diabetes medications and more. If you’re unsure about whether your medication could increase your sensitivity to the sun, talk with your doctor.
Avoid tanning beds
Getting a tan from a tanning bed will still expose you to UV radiation and cause damage to your skin, possibly contributing to skin cancer. So it’s best to completely skip tanning beds. Plus, it’s also a myth that getting a “base tan” before a vacation could better protect you from getting a sunburn. UV rays can still penetrate your skin to cause damage and increase your risk of skin cancer.
If you’d like a bronze glow, consider a self-tanning product in addition to regular sunscreen use.
Looking for changes to your skin
It’s never too late to start using sunscreen more often or remember to put on a hat for your next walk. But if you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun without much protection, look for changes to your skin. Moles that change over time, raised red patches, or rough and scaly skin patches can be signs of skin cancer. Visit your primary care doctor or a dermatologist if you have questions or concerns about your skin health.