Play it Safe in the Sun
Sunshine on your shoulders may make you happy, but it can also give you a sunburn. And did you know that it can bring other risks that go beyond sunburn? Even though sunlight is essential for all life on earth, repeated exposure to the sun is a major factor in long-term skin damage.

Sunlight is composed of two types of ultraviolet light, UVB (short wavelengths) and UVA (long wavelengths). Too much exposure to either kind of UV rays leads to wrinkling and premature aging of your skin, and it can also cause skin cancer. Sun-induced skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. Sun damage is cumulative, which means it keeps adding up over your lifetime. Even so, the harmful effects of sun exposure are largely preventable. You should begin protecting yourself from the sun at an early age to help ensure healthy skin throughout your life.

Skin damage does not occur only on the beach, close to the equator, or at high altitudes. You can never be too cautious about how much sun is good for you. Even casual exposure to sunlight – while going for a walk or taking an outdoor lunch break – contributes to the cumulative lifetime exposure that may eventually lead to skin damage. Schools, child care centers, camps, and sports leagues would be wise to rearrange outdoor play times to minimize children’s exposure to the midday sun. Be extra careful on cloudy days, because you will tend to stay out longer and can get sunburned without realizing it, since up to 80% of UVA and UVB radiation passes through the clouds.

Fair-skinned, light-haired people are the most sun-sensitive, while dark-haired, darker-skinned people have more pigmentation to serve as natural protection. However, no one is immune from skin damage. The tanning process is actually the skin’s attempt to defend itself against further injury. When skin cells sense that they are receiving too many UV rays, they begin producing a dark pigment called melanin to try and block the incoming rays. The deeper the color of the tan, the more overexposed the skin has been. Although a tan may help prevent sunburning, it will not protect you against wrinkling or skin cancer.

The hours between 10:00 am and 2:00 pm, when the sun’s rays are strongest, are the worst times to be outside. Avoid the sun during that time by staying indoors or in the shade. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, lightweight pants, and long-sleeve shirt made of tightly woven cotton fabric. Hold clothing up to the light; if you can see through it, the UV rays can get through, too. Desert-dwelling nomads have long known that covering up their bodies provides the best sun protection.

When choosing a sunscreen, SPF30 is the minimum level of protection recommended by the American Academy of Dermatology. However, swimming and sweating will reduce the actual SPF value of many sunscreens. And while sunscreens protect against UVB rays, no product can screen out all UVA rays. So even if you use high SPF sunscreens you are still vulnerable to skin damage from the sun’s UVA rays. This is why it’s always best to avoid long exposures of your skin to the sun, whether you’re wearing sunscreen or not.

The active ingredients of sunscreens come in two categories: chemical absorbers and mineral sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the energy of UV rays and converting it to heat that is dispersed in the skin. Mineral sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) work by reflecting UV rays and blocking sunlight from reaching the surface of the skin. Whichever type of sunscreen you use, you must liberally apply the recommended amount on your skin or you will not get the full protection.

Sunscreen should be applied about 15-30 minutes before going out in the sun, to allow time for it to be fully absorbed into the skin and the protective action to begin. Make sure that your shoulders, the back of your neck, hands, and the tops of your feet and ears are covered, and don’t forget the part in your hair at the top of your head. Use a lip balm with sunscreen for your lips.

And finally, eye protection is just as important as skin protection. Buy good-quality sunglasses with a coating that blocks UVA and UVB wavelengths, which should be clearly stated on the label. The color or darkness of the lenses isn’t important. Beware of cheap sunglasses that do not filter UV light – these can actually do more harm than good, because the pupils dilate behind the dark lenses, thus allowing more UV rays to enter the eyes.

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