Spending a day in the sun used to be so easy. All you had to do was slip into shorts and a tank top, grab your sunglasses and head outdoors. You could even spend worry-free hours lying in the backyard, skin shiny with Coppertone, working on your tan.
That was then. Now, we know that even the most attractive tan is a sign that your skin is trying to defend itself against the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Too much exposure to these rays causes sunburn, and over time they cause wrinkles, lines, liver spots and other signs of premature skin aging. UV rays also damage the skin’s DNA, which can lead to skin cancer.
You don’t have to spend your summer days inside, hiding from the sun. But you do need to protect your skin. These questions and answers can help you do that and still have fun in the sun:
Q: Does getting a suntan protect against sunburn?
A: A tan protects about like sunscreen with an SPF of 2 to 3 – too low to make a significant difference. But the worst part of this reasoning is that the suntan itself is harmful. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, tanned skin is a signal that DNA has been damaged.
Q: My skin is naturally dark. Does that protect me?
A: Yes, somewhat. Dark skin has more of a substance called melanin, which is protective against sun damage. In fact, melanin is what suntans are made of – your skin produces it in response to UV rays. But people of all races and skin colors can still get sun damage or skin cancer.
Q: What’s my best sun-protection strategy?
A: Start by making sunscreen part of you daily routine, even on cloudy days. Apply it about half an hour before you go out and every two hours after that. And don’t skimp – the American Cancer Society recommends using a palmful to cover all exposed parts of your body. You should also:
• Stay in the shade whenever possible.
• Be especially careful about sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.
• Wear a hat and tightly woven clothing, preferably with long sleeves.
• Wear sunglasses that guard against UVA and UVB rays.
Q: What SPF should I use?
A. SPF stands for sun protection factor. It tells you how long you’ll be protected from a sunburn. For example, with SPF 15 sunscreen it will take you 15 times as long to burn as it would with no sunscreen. But remember that swimming and sweating diminish sunscreen’s effectiveness, so reapply when needed. The National Institutes of Health recommend using sunscreen that’s at least SPF 15, and at least SPF 30 for people with very light skin.
Q: Are all sunscreen products the same?
A: No. For starters, don’t use that bottle of sunscreen that has been in the car for several years. Products that are more than three years old are probably not effective, especially if they have been exposed to high temperatures. You should also check the expiration date on sunscreen you buy, and also make sure the label says “broad spectrum.” That means it protects against UVA and UVB rays. To find out which products live up to their SPF label, visit the Environmental Working Group at ewg.org/2015sunscreen.
Q: Is UV light in tanning beds safer?
A: Tanning beds and sunlamps use UVA light, while sunlight has both UVA and UVB. But UVA light penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, and tanning sessions deliver the rays in a much greater concentration that you’d get from sunlight. Plus, you’ll still be getting natural UV rays when you go outside. So indoor tanning can cause as much or more damage as the sun.
Q: I still want a tan. What can I do?
A: You can get a temporary tan without the sun by using one of the many products that color your skin. Some of these, called “bronzers,” are applied like makeup and wash off with soap and water. Others use a chemical called DHA that interacts with the dead cells on the surface of your skin, coloring them darker. If you have this done in a salon, make sure your eyes and lips are protected. You can also buy pills that darken your skin, but they aren’t safe. Besides risking orange skin, you also may get hives, impaired vision or liver damage.
Q: Is there anything good about sun exposure?
A: Yes, but you need to weigh the risks and benefits. Sun on your skin helps your body make vitamin D, but only if you don’t use sunscreen. And you can also get this vitamin from supplements, some types of fish and fortified foods like cereals, milk and orange juice. Other sunshine benefits, though, work even with sunscreen. For example, getting some sun in the morning can help you sleep better at night, since it helps regulate your biological clock. And sunlight during the short winter months can help keep people from developing seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. In fact, a little sunshine can help improve your mood anytime – even when you use sunscreen.
Sun damage to your skin accumulates over your lifetime. If you’ve had severe sunburns in the past, or if you spend lots of time in the sun, consider having a doctor do an overall skin check. Most skin cancers can be cured when they are found early. For more information on the sun and your skin, visit the American Academy of Dermatology at aad.org.
Shawn Lake writes for Community Medical Center.