*UPDATE (June 2011) see some less expensive sunscreen choices.
The other day after posting less toxic sunscreen can cost more than an eco-friendly car, I got some comments (here and via Facebook and email) that made me realize that some people aren’t using sunscreen safely. It’s not just online people I worry about either. I know a ton of people in my real world life who don’t practice sun safety as well as they could, or sadly, at all.
For example, skin cancer runs in my son’s dad’s family, yet my son’s dad is extremely lax about sunscreen (which yes, irks me to no end); especially since our son is blond and light skinned. I have friends with kids who NEVER put sunscreen on those kids – and I do mean never. I’m not utterly perfect either. My son and I are good with sunscreen, but bad about always wearing our sunglasses and we rarely wear hats.
In any case, sun protection is a huge deal. Since people don’t seem to get this, we should look at some facts about why you need to stay safe in the sun. Later we’ll look at some sunscreen and sun protection tips.
I’m not going to get too much into cancer issues here and now, but consider these facts from the American Cancer Society:
- More than 2 million cases of skin cancer occur annually in the United States. More cases than all other cancers combined.
- 1 in every 5 Americans will develop skin cancer at some point during their lifetime.
- 5 or more sunburns during your lifetime doubles your risk of developing skin cancer.
- 80% of lifetime sun damage occurs in childhood and kids sunburns can lead to skin cancer in adulthood.
- Melanoma is the second most common cancer in women ages 20-29;1 person dies almost every hour (every 67 minutes) from this disease.
What’s skin cancer have to do with the sunshine?
Currently research shows that ultraviolet (UV) radiation is the major risk factor for most types of skin cancers. In turn, sunlight is the main source of UV rays. Tanning lamps and beds are also sources of UV radiation though. Folks exposed to high levels of exposure from tanning equipment are at greater risk for skin cancer.
What’s the deal with UV rays?
UV rays can damage the genes in your skin cells. Cell damage is a cause of cancer. Cutting your exposure to ultraviolet rays year-round, cuts your risk of developing skin cancer.
The most important thing to know about UV rays is that they can cause damage even when you can’t see the sunshine. Ultraviolet exposure does not stop just because it’s cloudy, raining or cold. Your chances of burning or tanning, of course, are much slimmer when there’s a cloud cover, but you are still exposed to rays in part. For example, today in Oregon it was cloudy for half the day, yet our UV Index was 3 – or a moderate level of exposure from UV rays.
Ultraviolet radiation has 3 wavelength ranges. Two are considered really harmful. One wavelength is UVA rays which quickly ages skin cells and can cause damage to cell DNA. UVB rays are another wavelength and these are the big bad – they’re the main rays that cause sunburns, direct DNA damage and most skin cancers.
NOT TO DWELL… but cloudy days are not super safe days!
I know, just above I mentioned cloudy days. However, over and over I hear people say…
- “I don’t need sunscreen it’s not sunny.”
- “You only need sunscreen in the summer.”
- “I don’t need sun protection in the snow.”
- “It’s raining, what do you mean wear sunscreen?”
People seem to think bright sun = danger. It’s rays that = danger, and UV rays, you cannot always see. So, not to beat a dead horse, but yes, you need sun protection (sunscreen included) year-round. The World Health Organization says the following:
“Do not underestimate the amount of UV radiation passing through clouds. Many surfaces reflect UV radiation and add to the overall UV levels you experience. Fresh snow is a particularly good reflector and almost doubles a person’s UV exposure. Recurring incidences of snow blindness or photokeratitis in skiers emphasize that UV protective measures must take ground reflection into account.
UV levels are highest under cloudless skies, and cloud cover generally reduces a person’s exposure. However, light or thin clouds have little effect and may even enhance UV levels because of scattering. Don’t be fooled by an overcast day or a cool breeze! Even a long stay in open shade, for example between buildings, may give a sensitive person a sunburn on a day with high UV levels.“
- Sunburn and tanning. Although usually only sunburns are painful, both are signs of skin damage.
- Prematurely aged skin and wrinkles.
- Loss of skin elasticity and dry skin.
- Dark patches like age spots or liver spots.
- Pre-cancerous skin changes (such as scaly, rough patches).
- Cataracts – which are the leading cause of blindness in the world.
- Acute effects of UV radiation exposure on the eyes include photokeratitis and photoconjunctivitis (pdf).
- Suppressed immune system.
Next up: some basic information about how to use sunscreen. If you need more information right away, check out the following sites…
- The SunWise Program – an environmental and health education program all about sun safety.
- Skin cancer fact sheets for your state by the EPA and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
- Skin cancer facts
- Misconceptions about tanning and sun safety
- A lot of information on tanning beds – which are NOT safe although the biz is booming
Just for kids: SunWise Kids website – great for elementary aged kids.