Warmer days are upon us as we near the end of spring and enter our summer months.
With a vast majority of 2020 and even 2021 spent indoors due to COVID restrictions and social distancing, I suspect more people are going to choose to spend their free time outdoors. Soon the Lake Lanier waters will fill with boats, Jet Skis and kayaks while the Chattahoochee fills with fishermen and innertubes.
It is important to spend some time outside because sunlight helps us increase vitamin D, which in turn strengthens our bones, regulates our circadian rhythm and wards off depression. But we have all heard that too much of a good thing can in fact be a bad thing.
Unfortunately, with too much sun exposure, we risk sunburns, signs of aging and skin cancer.
Did you know one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70? Hopefully by now you’re thinking, “I want the benefits but also don’t want the risks of sun exposure.” This is where sunscreen comes into play!
Before we get into the different types of sunscreens and sun protection factors, let’s spend some time understanding how UV rays from the sun work.
There are three types of UV rays, UV-A, UV-B and UV-C.
UV-C rays are the most dangerous, but lucky for us, they are blocked by earth’s ozone layer, so they do not play a role in the sun’s effect on our skin.
While both UV-A and UV-B can penetrate the clouds and cause damage, think A for aging and B for burns. UV-A rays account for the majority of radiation that reaches the earth’s surface, and they penetrate deep into our skin layers causing longer term damage such as aging, wrinkling and the DNA changes that result in cancer. UV-A rays can even penetrate glass and are the types of rays found in tanning beds.
UV-B rays have a shorter wavelength, so they are responsible for surface damage such as sunburns but are also strongly linked to cancer. UV-B rays cannot penetrate glass.
While radiation is higher in summer months and between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., it is important to note that because up to 90% of UV rays penetrate the clouds, the sun has potential to burn and cause damage any time of the day and year-round, even when it’s cloudy and cold outside.
Based on what we know about UV rays, everyone should wear sunscreen if they plan to spend any time outdoors.
You may have walked down a sunscreen aisle once or twice before and felt overwhelmed by the choices. There are numerous brands to choose from, different SPF levels, ingredients and even sunscreens for certain activities.
The following are questions you may have when choosing a sunscreen or even on the proper method to apply sunscreen.
When choosing an SPF, what level is most beneficial?
SPF measures how well a sunscreen will protect against UV-B rays. Studies have found that SPF-30 will block 97% of UV-B rays while SPF-50 blocks 98%. SPF-15 only blocks 93% of UV-B rays.
Anything above 50 really does not make a difference and can often cause a false sense of security about protection and may lead to less reapplication.
So, when choosing a sunscreen based on SPF, reach for SPF 30 or 50. Also pick a sunscreen that is labeled “broad-spectrum” to be sure you’re getting protection against UV-A rays too!
Does water-resistant or sweat-resistant mean I’m fully protected in the water or when sweating?
The vast majority of water-resistant sunscreens state the SPF is maintained up to 40 minutes in water, while some state 80 minutes. This means you will be protected for up to that amount of time, so it is best to re-apply sunscreen every 2 hours or sooner if you have been swimming or sweating.
How should I apply sunscreen?
Most adults need about 1 ounce to cover their full body, this is enough to fill a shot glass. Sunscreen should be applied to cover all skin that clothing will not cover — that includes the tops of your feet, neck, ears and top of your head. Be sure to apply 15 minutes before going outdoors so the sunscreen has time to dry. Also, be sure to protect your lips with lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen.
Don’t forget to reapply!
What else can I do to help protect myself against the sun’s rays?
Seek shade if you are able and choose protective clothing such as light-weight long sleeve shirts, wide-brimmed hats and sunglasses when possible.
Remember that water, snow and sand can be reflective, increasing your chances of sunburn.
What if I get a sunburn?
If you notice you developed a sunburn, it is important to start treating as soon as possible. Avoid sun while your skin heals. Sunburns will draw extra fluid to the skin surface, so be sure to drink plenty of extra water to help prevent dehydration.
Aspirin or ibuprofen can help reduce any swelling or discomfort. Cool baths, application of a moisturizer or aloe vera gel can help ease discomfort by reducing heat and keeping the area moist.
If a blister develops, this is known as a second degree burn and you should leave the blister untouched and allow it to heal on its own. If the blister covers a large area or you begin to develop a fever or chills, you should seek immediate medical care.
I hope this article has inspired you to head outside.
If you’re looking for activities to do in our Gainesville community, you can head to gainesvilletimes.com.
Let’s grab our sunscreen, water, sunglasses and hats, and I’ll see you outdoors!
Dr. Brittany Barthelemy is a part of the family medicine resident program at Northeast Georgia Health System. Columns publish monthly from residents in the program.