red head woman at the beach applying sunscreen to her face

10 things you need to know to enjoy the sun safely

It scares me to think of all the risky things I and so many others did in childhood. No, I’m not talking about risky behaviors like in sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll (let’s keep those details between ourselves), but health-related risky behaviors that were once considered harmless (or barely considered).

Driving in a car without a seat belt, riding a bicycle without a helmet, racing through clouds of DDT, being exposed to secondhand (or worse, firsthand) smoke and baking in the sun.

These things weren’t really our fault. We just didn’t know any better then – and few people did.

Seat belts are now mandatory, bike helmets plentiful. DDT is a banned pesticide and its smoke is a known carcinogen.

And the sun? While we know it’s the leading cause of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer and premature skin aging, we still love it. And while UV exposure is the most preventable risk factor for all skin cancers, not enough people take the risks of the sun seriously.

That’s not to say you have to avoid the sun completely, although there are some who should. This means that you must practice your sun worship safely.

  1. Use sunscreen during daily activities, not just at the beach or pool. That means when you do things like walk the dog, drive a car, sit outside, or mow the lawn. Simply being outdoors without skin protection increases your risk of developing skin cancer.
  2. Apply sunscreen even if you don’t think you need it. It doesn’t have to be a sunny day or a summer day. About 80% of UV rays can penetrate clouds and snow, sand and water can reflect the sun’s rays. Not enough people are aware of this. The American Academy of Dermatologists found that only 1 in 5 Americans always or almost always use sunscreen when outside on cloudy days.
  3. Use the right type of sunscreen. Everyone should use a waterproof, broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 30. Broad-spectrum is protective against UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause skin cancer.
  4. Don’t wait until you get to the beach or outdoors to apply sunscreen. Instead, apply it 20 to 30 minutes before going outside. This is because it takes about 15 minutes for the sunscreen to be absorbed into the skin. And remember, trees, canopies or umbrellas don’t offer complete sun protection.
  5. Are you using enough? Many people underestimate how much they need. The rule of thumb for most adults is to use about a full shot glass, which equals about 1 ounce, to cover your body, and a nickel (or more) amount for your face, neck and legs. ears. Learn more about How to use sunscreen the right way.
  6. Are you applying sunscreen often enough? Even if sunscreens are labeled “waterproof” or “sweatproof” or “all-day protection,” you still need to reapply them every two hours (or right after swimming or sweating).
  7. Areas that are easy to miss include the neck, ears, and tops of the feet and legs. If your hair is thinning, be sure to cover your scalp with sunscreen as well. Better yet, apply sunscreen and wear a hat. For your lips, use a lip balm with an SPF of 15 or higher.
  8. Check the expiration date. The shelf life of sunscreen is approximately three years, as regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some will be marked with an expiration date (if yours isn’t, write the purchase date on the container). Throw it away if it has expired or you bought it more than three years ago, as it will have lost its effectiveness.
  9. While news stories recently mentioned that sunscreen ingredients can potentially be absorbed by the skin and enter the bloodstream and therefore may not be safe, experts aren’t saying to ditch sunscreen. They also state that an ingredient is not necessarily dangerous just because it is absorbed. FDA calls for more safety data. (If you’re concerned, you can use sunscreens that contain active mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These ingredients aren’t absorbed into the skin; instead, they work by sitting on top of the skin and deflecting and scattering UVA rays and UVB pull the rays away from the skin and are known as “physical sunscreens”.)
  10. While clothing can offer a good barrier against the sun, you can still get sunburned. Less sun will penetrate through knit or tightly woven fabrics, and darker colors usually block more UV radiation than lighter ones. If you have clothing with built-in UV protection, remember that this protection wears off if it is too stretched, wet or worn. (There are special additives you can use during the washing process that can restore SPF protection.)

If all fails and you get sunburned anyway, learn more about How to Treat a Sunburn.

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