Sun Exposure: 7 Things You Need to Know

Spring’s sunny skies and warm weather almost beg us to spend every waking hour outside. As luxurious as it may feel to lounge on a patio or work out at the park, too much sun exposure is a real problem. Even if you try to be smart about sunscreen, it’s unlikely you’re doing everything you can to keep yourself protected.

Because skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it’s time to take the sun’s rays a little more seriously. Whether you’re a beach bum or someone who enjoys going for the occasional hike, you need to know the risks. Armed with a fair amount of knowledge and some decent sunscreen, you’ll be able to safely enjoy every second spent outside.

1. A burn isn’t the only indication of damage

group of friend playing volleyball at the beach

Friends playing beach volleyball on a sunny day | Source: iStock

A red, painful sunburn is the clearest indication you’ve done some damage to your skin. One 2014 study involving nearly 109,000 women found those who had five or more blistering sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20 were 80% more likely to get melanoma. Additionally, the researchers found high incidence of sun exposure later in life was also linked to a greater risk of basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma, two other types of skin cancer.

The bad news is you could go your entire life without a bad burn and still be at risk. As Stony Brook Medicine explained, any amount of sun exposure increases your risk of cancer. One review of 39 studies published in Seminars in Oncology reported even intermittent sun exposure increases the risk of melanoma. In short, there’s no such thing as a healthy tan.

2. It doesn’t just harm your skin

bearded man wearing sunglasses as he sits at the beach

Man sitting at the beach wearing sunglasses | Source: iStock

While talk of sun damage is usually limited to how it affects your skin, the bad news doesn’t end there. Your peepers are also at risk. It might sound made up, but it’s 100% possible to get a sunburn on your eyes. Furthermore, such unprotected exposure can lead to bigger problems down the road. In a 2011 review, researchers reported ultraviolet (UV) exposure can increase the risk of a number of eye diseases, including cataracts. To make your time outside safer, make sure to grab your sunglasses.

You should also consider your hair when heading out in the sun. While studies about the relationship between hair loss and sun exposure have been largely inconclusive, there’s no doubt the harmful rays can do some damage. Dr. Alan Bowman, a hair transplant surgeon, told The Huffington Post, exposure to UV radiation can weaken the fibers and make your strands appear duller. Adding a hat can help, so make it a habit to grab one when you know you’ll be outside for a prolonged period of time.

3. Spring can be more dangerous than summer

Though most people do a better job of listening to dermatologists’ warnings to limit sun exposure during the summer months, they don’t typically heed the same advice in the spring. According to Consumer Reports, the UV radiation in North America is actually strongest in the late spring and early summer months. And many people wind up using the remnants of a bottle that’s been sitting around their house for far too long. Mayo Clinic explained, while most products last for three years, they do eventually lose their potency. Most sunscreens have an expiration date to make things easy. If yours is outdated or you can’t find the label, it’s time for a new bottle.

4. Seeking shade isn’t enough

family of three setting up a beach umbrella to limit sun exposure on a sunny day at the beach

Famil setting up an umbrella to limit sun exposure at the beach | Source: iStock

Staying underneath an umbrella or tree while at the beach can help reduce your chances of getting burnt, but it won’t eliminate the risk. CNN explained sand can actually reflect UV radiation. And the same is true of water. Even cloudy days are no excuse to skip sunscreen. According to the same story, about 80% of the harmful rays can pass through clouds. In this respect, an overcast day might be the most dangerous since many will be tempted to skip their usual sun protection.

No matter where you’ll be outside, sunscreen should be part of your routine. According to Time, you need to get a bottle labeled “broad spectrum” in order to get protection from both types of UV rays. The story said to reach for a minimum of SPF 30 and use enough to fill a shot glass, about 1.5 ounces.

5. Higher altitude is riskier

Those who like to hike for exercise should be particularly mindful of spending time in the sun. For starters, many peaks don’t offer much in the way of shade. The actual elevation also makes a difference. According to research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, a person who would burn after 25 minutes of sun exposure in New York would get similarly red after just 6 minutes in Vail, Colo.

6. Some foods and medications can make you more vulnerable

prescription pills falling out of a bottle

Pills spilling out of an orange prescription bottle | Source: iStock

Many people start new medications without ever taking the time to assess the potential risks. Just because you get the green light from your doctor doesn’t mean you shouldn’t educate yourself. You might be surprised how many types of medication can increase your sensitivity to the sun. These include topical solutions for acne, but even oral medications lead to complications. According to WebMD, antihistamines, antibiotics, and anti-inflammatories can all increase your risk.

Food might play an important role as well. Though there’s still much follow-up research to be done, one 2015 study found those who ate the most citrus were more likely to develop melanoma. This doesn’t mean skip the fruit, though. Just be sure you’re slathering on enough sunscreen.

7. Men have a higher risk of skin cancer

The association between women and tanning makes it seem like they’d be most at risk for skin cancer, but the research actually indicates the opposite. According to The Skin Cancer Foundation, nearly two-thirds of the 9,480 U.S. patients who died of melanoma in 2013 were male. There’s still a lot of debate about whether this is due to biological or behavioral factors, but it’s a good reminder to do everything you can to keep yourself protected.

Follow Christine on Twitter @christineskopec

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