Sometimes, when I’m sitting at work —tucked away in the cube farm, beneath the phosphorescent glow of manufactured light— my mind drifts over memories of the summers of my youth. All those long, lazy days spent largely in our dark family room before the Technicolor glow of the television while my mom practically begged me to go outside — good times. Good times.
Conversely, I spent nearly all of last weekend on a pool deck, watching two of our daughters compete in several games at a water polo tournament. There’s nothing like spending hours and hours in direct sunlight in 100-plus degree weather to get you thinking about your kids’ chances of developing skin cancer.
Remember when going outside in the sun wasn’t laced with the terrifying possibility of melanoma by the time you turned 26? How times have changed… or rather, our awareness has — particularly of what causes skin cancer and what we can do to limit our kids’ exposure to it.
You may be asking yourself, “But why is sitting in the sun so bad?” In limited doses, it’s fine. My mom wasn’t wrong to hound me to get out there and absorb some vitamin D. However, to put it into perspective, experts say that fair-skinned people wearing shorts and a tank top with no sunscreen who go out in the midday sun for about 10 minutes absorb about 10,000 international units (IUs) of the vitamin.
The thing is, the government recommends people age 50 and younger get about 200 IUs per day. While absorption varies due to age and skin color, clearly, a little sun goes a long way.
No, the unhealthy part of extreme exposure is due, in short, to ultraviolet radiation (aka UV rays).
As you likely know, the sun emits UV rays — which are absorbed by our skin, cause sunburns and given time (and motive — UV rays can be especially onerous), may cause skin cancer.
So how do we protect ourselves? Stop damaging the ozone. After reading about UV rays, I came to realize that the ozone layer — a layer of the Earth’s stratosphere — is our first and seemingly largest form of sun protection. This shield absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. But not all of it.
There are 3 types of UV rays. The first type, UV-A rays, have the longest wavelength and aren’t absorbed by the ozone. They hit us straight on — WHAM! — and are absorbed into our skin. These rays penetrate deeper than the second type, UV-B rays. UV-B rays — which are only partially absorbed by the Earth’s ozone layer — are the ones we notice the most; they’re responsible for sunburns. And the cleverly named (you guessed it) UV-C rays generally don’t hit us from natural sources at all; those are completely absorbed by the earth’s atmosphere.
Thus, our need for sun protection comes down to blocking out UV-A and UV-B rays. The best ways to accomplish this is via clothing (sorry, nudists); wearing over-large hats that provide shade (sorry, fashionistas); donning UV-protectant sunglasses (no apologies; sunglasses are awesome); staying in the shade when venturing outside (also awesome); and applying a really good sunscreen (NECESSARY).
In the case of my kids, who are water-polo players and have limited protection options, the only thing I can really do is assist in the sunscreen department.
If you’re like me and want to do all that you can to protect your loved ones as much as possible, here’re a few ways to optimize sun protection:
▪ Choose a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against UV-A and UV-B rays. Don’t shortchange yourself, or your kids. UV-A and UV-B rays are harmful, and not all sunscreens protect against both. Be sure to look for the words “broad spectrum” on the packaging for a product that stops the absorption to the rays, and prevents skin from burning.
▪ Select a sunscreen that has SPF 15 or higher. SPF, short for Sun Protection Factor, is a way of generally measuring how long a person can stay out in the sun before getting a sunburn. For example, if you burn after 10 minutes in the sun without protection, a sunscreen with SPF of 30 means you could stay out in the sun 30 times as long. While many experts say that a sunscreen of 15 SPF is sufficient when correctly applied, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends sunscreen that has SPF of 30 or higher.
▪ Go water-resistant. They say pigs sweat and ladies perspire. Whatever you want to call it, when we heat up, humans emit water and that water washes away any sunscreen you may have applied. A water-resistant product doesn’t last forever, but it does make sunscreen last longer, especially if water play is involved.
▪ Sunscreen should be applied 30 minutes BEFORE going out into the sun. I wish I’d known this little fact years ago, because until now, I’ve been slathering it on when I arrived at my sun-drenched location and as such have missed out on a chunk of vital UV protection. Why 30 minutes? Sunscreen needs to be absorbed by the skin for UV-protection. Absorption reduces the likelihood of the lotion washing off when you perspire or swim.
▪ Apply one ounce (enough to fill a shot glass ) to cover your entire body. Sadly, the AAD reports that the average person only applies only 25% to 50% of the recommended amount of sunscreen. Don’t be average. Slather on an ounce. Remember: It’s not just sitting on top of your skin; it needs to be absorbed to be fully effective.
▪ Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours. Lathing up once or twice won’t cut it. Even if you’re not swimming, reapplying every 2 hours is essential for solid protection—including on cloudy days.
▪ Pay attention to the expiration date. Finally, a little surprise: Sunscreen has efficacy, and can lose it over time. Sunscreens retain their original strength for only three years. If yours is beyond its expiration date, toss it out and replace it. Doesn’t have an expiration date on the bottle? Look for obvious signs of degradation: changes in color or consistency mean its time for a new bottle.