By this point in the summer, we hope you’ve logged some quality outdoor time — hiking, biking, swimming, cookouts, even lounging by the pool with a good book. And with any luck, you’ve enjoyed the sunshine without the painful itching and blistering from a serious sunburn. But mistakes happen, and some of us are sporting shoulders and faces more sun-kissed than they should be.
With plenty of warm weather left to enjoy, we talked with OhioHealth surgical oncologist Natalie Jones, MD, to find out where we’re making mistakes with sun protection, what long-term effects can result from excessive sun exposure, and how to get back on the right track.
Mistake 1: Paying too much for sunscreen and not using it often enough
“There’s a misconception with sunscreen that the higher SPF you can get, the better,” says Dr. Jones. “In reality, SPF 15 to 30 is going to give you very good coverage without being too expensive. The higher SPFs come with a higher price tag that doesn’t really translate to substantially more coverage.” If the sunscreen you’re using is more affordable, you’re more likely to use it properly. “Just remember to apply sunscreen generously every 2-3 hours, especially when there’s water or wind involved,” says Dr. Jones.
Mistake 2: Underestimating the strength of the sun
“The sun is at its strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. It’s during this time of day that sunscreen and protective clothing are most important,” says Dr. Jones. She says the mistake many people make is misjudging the strength of the sun on an overcast day. Most of the sun’s harmful rays punch right through the clouds, leaving unprotected skin highly susceptible to burning. “Some of the worst sunburns occur on cloudy days and could have been avoidable,” adds Jones.
Mistake 3: Choosing the wrong clothing
Our clothing gets lighter in the summer to accommodate warmer temperatures, but a few hours of inadequate coverage is all it takes to develop severe sunburn. “Carry a wide-brimmed hat with you that offers good coverage of both your face and neck, especially if you don’t have much hair or your scalp is bare,” says Jones. “Many summer clothes also offer protection from UVA and UVB radiation, especially swim shirts, which are a great option for young kids.”
Mistake 4: Underestimating the threat of sun damage
“Being neglectful with sun protection at younger ages can impact us later in life,” says Dr. Jones. “A couple of blistering sunburns increases your risk of developing the three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. The UVA and UVB radiation from prolonged sun exposure damages skin cells, which can lead to harmful transformations in their cell structure. Preventing sunburns is ideal, but being mindful of your daily sun exposure is important, too.”
Mistake 5: Not having a baseline medical examination of your skin
“It’s important to have a yearly skin exam, particularly if you have moles or a fair complexion,” says Dr. Jones. “A dermatologist will document the location and dimension of your moles. From that initial examination, they will be able to detect subtle changes in any of your moles more easily, so they can be biopsied and diagnosed as quickly as possible. The sooner we can diagnose skin cancer, the better the opportunity for a successful outcome.”
So slather on the sunscreen, keep your beach hat close and give yourself a break from the sun when it’s most intense. And talk with your primary care doctor or dermatologist about beginning annual skin exams. Stay safe and enjoy your summer!