Sun Safety

If you’ve ever gotten a sunburn, you know that too much sun on your skin can be unpleasant. However, the harmful effects of overexposure to sunlight can reach far deeper, and last for much longer than a temporary burn. Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation—a form of invisible, shortwave radiation emitted from the sun, tanning beds, and sunlamps—can cause early signs of skin aging; loss of skin elasticity; increase the risk of cataracts; suppress the body’s immune system; and lead to skin cancer, the most common form of cancer diagnosed in the United States, and which has been on the rise in recent decades.  Each year, more than 5 million skin cancers are diagnosed in the United States—more than all other forms of cancer combined—and the American Cancer Society estimates that more than 9,700 lives will be claimed by skin cancer in 2017.

As we enter the start of summer, we’re also entering the high-risk time of year for sun damage. Not only do people tend to spend more time outside during the longer days of the warmer months, but during the summer the sun’s light shines more directly on this part of the planet, allowing more ultraviolet (UV) radiation to penetrate the atmosphere. People may also be more likely to be outside from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., the time period when UV rays are at their peak for the day. These incoming rays can bounce off of reflective surfaces like sand, water, snow, or pavement, and over 90% of incoming UV radiation can penetrate light cloud cover.

Don’t let this information make you completely eschew the outdoors—getting outside is an important part of a healthy lifestyle, and there are many easy ways you can protect your skin and eyes while enjoying nature. No one method of protection is enough, so use the strategies below in combination to make sure that you and your family are having a safe and healthy time outdoors:

  • Seek shade: Whenever possible, move to a shaded area if you’re going to be outside. Bring a large umbrella with you if you don’t think there will be shade at the location, such as the beach, or the sideline of an athletic field.
  • Wear protective clothing: Choose tight-woven fabrics with long sleeves when possible, and find a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face, ears, and neck.
  • Wear sunglasses: Look for glasses that block at least 99% of UV light to protect your corneas from irritation and damage.
  • Regularly apply broad-spectrum, 30+ SPF sunscreen: The American Cancer Society recommends using sunscreen every day, regardless of the temperature or the weather. When choosing a sunscreen, there are a few terms you should look for:
    • Broad-spectrum: This label indicates that it protects against both types of UV radiation that make it to the ground: UVA and UVB. While UVB rays are the ones predominantly responsible for sunburns, UVA rays contribute to skin cancer and premature aging.
    • Sun-protection factor (SPF): This describes the level of protection the product is going to provide against UVB rays. Sunscreens with an SPF of 30 filter out about 97% of incoming UVB radiation, while sunscreens with an SPF of 50 filters out about 98%. No one sunscreen can protect you completely, so make sure to use this in conjunction with shade, clothing, and sunglasses.
    • Water-resistant versus waterproof: No sunscreen is completely waterproof or “sweatproof.” If the product says that it’s water-resistant, it must also specify on the packaging whether it lasts for 40 or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating. Reapply your sunscreen at least every two hours, and after toweling yourself dry if you’re swimming or sweating.
  • Check the UV Index: Just like you check the weather before leaving the house, you can check the expected intensity of the UV radiation for the day using the UV Index, a scale used by the US Environmental Protection Agency and the National Weather Service to communicate the net level of UV radiation reaching the ground. Ranging from 1 to 11+, this scale lets you know how intense the UV radiation is expected to be for the day in your zip code, and recommends specific actions to take based on that intensity to protect your health against the sun. You can check your local UV index online, or via the EPA UV Index mobile app.

The SunWise program is a free environmental and health education program to teach K–8 children about sun safety, UV radiation, and stratospheric ozone. Educators who join the SunWise program receive a FREE tool kit with over 50 cross-curricular, standards-based activities and a UV-sensitive Frisbee for hands-on learning and physical fitness. Learn more about the SunWise program, now at NEEF.