By Dr. Graham A. Colditz
Siteman Cancer Center
For the last few years, summertime has felt even more special to me than usual. With the long, warm days, we’re finally able to get outside more and enjoy walks, bike rides and time at the park—often with family and friends we may not have seen for a while.
In our excitement to enjoy everything summer has to offer, it’s important that we don’t forget to protect our skin when we’re out in the sun. The sun’s ultraviolet—or UV—rays can damage skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer, including the most serious type of skin cancer, melanoma.
“There are increasing rates of skin cancer on the whole,” said Dr. Lynn Cornelius, chief of dermatology at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. “Some of this may be due to aging populations, and some due to people not photo-protecting as well as they should.”
Key steps we can take to protect our skin from the sun include using sunscreen (and re-applying), finding shade between 10 AM and 4 PM and wearing sunglasses, hats, and long sleeve shirts.
For sunscreens, a 30 SPF (sun protection factor) or higher rating is good for shorter periods outside. For longer outings, a 50 SPF or higher is better. Choose either a chemical sunscreen, which absorbs UV rays, or a mineral sunscreen, such as zinc, which blocks UV rays. Despite some news reports that pop up occasionally, both types are safe for children and adults. So, pick whichever type you and your family prefer.
“Try different formulations; there are a lot of them out there,” Cornelius said. “The most important sunscreen is the one that you’ll use.”
For clothes, those made of fabrics that block the sun can be an especially good choice. Similar to the SPF ratings of sunscreens, sun protective clothes often come with a specific UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) rating. The higher the number, the better the protection.
“There’s great clothing out there now,” Cornelius said. “They’re not heavy. They’re not expensive, and you can get them just about anywhere. We tell a lot of folks to wear those – particularly at the beach – or for little kids.”
Cornelius offered these additional tips for staying safe in the sun:
• Protect your skin whatever your skin tone. People of color with darker skin have some natural protection, but darker skin can still burn, and it can still develop skin cancer.
• Reapply sunscreen every couple of hours, or after sweating or going in the water. It’s important but something people often forget to do.
• Rub in spray-on sunscreens. It’s easy to miss spots otherwise.
• Keep a small container of sunscreen with you, so you always have it when you need it. Sunscreen sticks fit great in pockets and work well when you’re hot and sweaty.
• Use sunscreen even if your makeup has UV protection. Most makeup has a lower SPF.
• Don’t forget to protect your ears, including the tops. It’s a common spot for skin cancers, particularly in men.
• Don’t forget to protect your scalp if your hair is thinning. Spray-on sunscreens can be good for this.
• If you work outside, try to take particular care to protect yourself from the sun. Options may be limited, but whatever steps you take can help.
Enjoying the outdoors is one of the best parts of summertime. And with just a few relatively simple steps, we can help protect ourselves and our family from the sun’s rays. And that can make an already good time feel even better.
It’s your health—and your family’s health. Take control.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention and the creator of the free prevention tool YourDiseaseRisk.com. The Phelps Health Delbert Day Cancer Institute is part of the Siteman Cancer Network.