Being Safe in the Sun

Summer is right around the corner, and you may be eager to get out and soak up the sun after a long winter. The warm rays can feel great and deliver some natural vitamin D, but without proper protection, they can also do lasting damage to your skin, accelerating the effects of aging and increasing the risk of skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the U.S., with about one in five Americans developing the disease eventually. And rates of melanoma – a deadly type of skin cancer – have doubled in the last 30 years. All types of tanning carry risk, from lying in the sun to using tanning beds, tanning booths or sun lamps. While risk can build up through the years, sun exposure during childhood or the teenage years is a key risk factor for melanoma in adulthood, as is the use of tanning beds in one’s youth.

While more and more people are taking steps to avoid indoor tanning and to protect themselves from the sun, there remains a lot of room for improvement. Around 30 percent of U.S. adults don’t regularly use sunscreen, find shade or wear sun-protective clothes during the day. Close to 60 percent of high school students have at least one sunburn a year, and around 13 percent of 12th grade girls use tanning beds at least once a year.

The good news is that there are simple steps you and your family can take to avoid the damage of tanning, while still enjoying the sunny days of summer:

  • Head outside early or late in the day. The sun is at its strongest and most damaging between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so plan outdoor activities before or after that time. When you do head out, be sure you’re sun-safe (see below).
  • Find shade. Shade is great protection from the sun, so always try to park yourself under a canopy, umbrella or shade tree when you’re outside.
  • Wear your sun protection. Wearing the right clothes can really help protect against damaging rays. This means wearing wide-brim hats, lightweight pants, long sleeve shirts and sunglasses.
  • Slap on sunscreen – and more than you’re probably used to. When going outside during the day, always use broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. And be sure to apply enough. Most people don’t. One ounce is recommended to cover your face and skin at the pool. That’s about two tablespoons, which should fill the palm of your hand. Re-apply every two hours or after getting out of the water.
  • Avoid indoor tanning – completely. This is a pretty simple one. Whatever season it is, it’s best and safest to completely avoid indoor tanning. The lamps used in tanning beds can be more powerful than the noontime summer sun.
  • Build sun-safe family habits. Being sun-safe is important at any age, but it’s particularly so in youth. So, it’s key to help kids develop healthy habits early in life.
  • Talk with your kids about the damage that can be caused by indoor tanning, and encourage them to completely avoid tanning beds.
  • Make sure your kids are sun-safe when they go outside: sunscreen, hats, pants, long sleeve shirts, sunglasses. And remind them to be sun-safe even when you’re not there to pester them about it.
  • Be a good sun-safe role model. Whether it seems like it or not, kids often follow the lead of their parents – or at least take note of how they act. So, it’s important to make sure we follow the same sun-safe steps we have them follow.

It really doesn’t take too much effort to stay safe in the sun. And after a while, it becomes second nature, like putting on a seatbelt when driving a car, or wearing a helmet when riding a bike.

So, get out and enjoy the season’s long, warm days – and be sun-safe.


Written by: Hank Dart, MS is a public health expert who works in prevention and control for the Siteman Cancer Center at Washington University School of Medicine. He oversees the popular health risk assessment website, Your Disease Risk, and the 8IGHT WAYS cancer prevention series. He is co-author of the books Healthy Women, Healthy Lives and Eat Well & Keep Moving, and has previously worked for the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute; the Department of Nutrition at the Harvard School of Public Health; and the Harvard Center for Cancer Prevention. He received his bachelor's degree in Human Biology from Stanford University and his Master of Science degree from the Harvard School of Public Health.

(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

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