Want to Soak Up the Sun? Be Smart About It

Healthy Living

July 21, 2020

Soaking up some rays as you lounge in a beach chair is a quintessential summer activity. The more we learn about UV safety, though, the more that sun-soaked lounge session seems like a bad idea.

But there’s no need to scrap all your outdoor fun over fears about sun exposure. By learning to balance UV safety with the need for fresh air, you can enjoy your summer relaxation time without harming your skin.

First, understand the risks of sun exposure.

Sun protection can feel like a lot of work. But learning the effects of time in the sun might motivate you to take extra precautions when you’re out.

The sun gives off ultraviolet (UV) light. UV exposure has been linked to skin cancers like squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. Getting sunburned just five times or having a blistering sunburn even once can double the chances that you’ll develop melanoma at some point.

Too much sun can cause other damage, too. For example, sun damage can contribute to cataracts and other eye problems. 

Overexposure to the sun may even limit how well your immune system functions.

Plus, sun exposure can do a number on your looks. That’s because UV rays cause premature aging, which can appear in the form of wrinkles and dark spots. Scientists estimate that 90% of these developments are the result of UV radiation.

Then prep your skin ahead of time.

Heading outside? Grab your sunscreen — even if your outing doesn’t include a dip in the pool.

Whenever you’re going to be outside for any length of time, it’s important to get your body ready with a thorough layer of sunscreen. Plan ahead so you can put on sunscreen about half an hour before you head outdoors.

Depending on what type of sunscreen you choose, the formula may work in one of two ways:

  • Physical sunscreens, like the mineral variety, reflect UV rays away from your skin. 
  • Other sunscreens have compounds that absorb UV light through chemical reactions.

The science is still out on which type of sunscreen is safest. Mineral varieties don’t absorb into your skin (and bloodstream) like chemical ones do. The FDA is still investigating what this means for consumers.

But for now, any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen.

Even on cloudy days, it’s important to apply one full ounce of sunscreen to all exposed areas of your body. Worried you’ll forget? Just make sunscreen application a standard step in your getting-ready routine. SPF 15 is sufficient for everyday wear. But you should upgrade to at least SPF 30 if you’re going to work or play outside.

When you’re spending time in the sun, apply a fresh layer of sunscreen every two hours. If you’re engaged in wet or sweaty activities, you may need to reapply more often. Get a variety that’s designed for water resistance, too.

As for your face, this sensitive area may need special care. Look for a gentle sunscreen that won’t clog pores. Consider getting extra protection with a facial moisturizer or makeup with SPF protection. Put on a layer of SPF lip balm as well.

And check your kids, too, who may spend more time outdoors and may have more sensitive skin. Mineral varieties work better for sensitive skin. Just make sure the whole family — everyone older than 6 months — gets a good layer of protection before heading out.

Don’t forget about your outfit, too.

Topical products offer one layer of skin protection. The clothing you wear provides another. Some general tips:

  • When possible, wear long pants and a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt for your outdoor activities. This will help protect against insect bites, too. 
  • Bring rashguard tops and flowy beach covers to the pool, especially for kids. 
  • If you spend a lot of time outdoors, invest in a few articles of clothing that feature built-in SPF capabilities, like hats and tops.

Clothing can also help protect babies younger than 6 months from too much sun exposure. Since younger babies should not wear sunscreen, dress them in lightweight clothing to block the sun as much as possible.

And don’t forget that your face and head need sun protection as well. 

Opt for sunglasses that give at least 99% UV protection. The better they wrap around your face, the more rays they’ll block. Stick a hat, too, preferably one with a wide brim.

Respect the time of day.

The middle of the day, from around 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., is usually when sunshine is at its peak. By planning the majority of your outside activities before or after this window, you can reduce your overall sun exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency offers a free mobile app, SunWise UV Index, for Apple and Android phones. You can use it to check the daily UV forecast for your area and plan your outdoor time based on the hour-by-hour breakdown.

If you do need to be outside during peak UV hours, consider limiting your time there. 

There’s no set formula for how long is too long in the sun, especially since drinking plenty of water and taking protective measures can help you stay safe for longer. Still, it’s a good idea to take breaks throughout the afternoon to cool down in the shade and reapply sunscreen.

And check for shade while you’re out.

When outside, pay attention to what’s around you. Planning ahead will help add another layer of protection while you’re out.

Pick a shady spot if possible. Trees provide a natural canopy, but umbrellas and pop-up tents are a good alternative for wide, open spaces. 

Don’t rely on shades as your only source of sun protection, though. It’s still important to apply sunscreen and wear protective clothing.

And keep in mind that some surfaces are more reflective than others. 

Water and snow are particularly known for bouncing the sun’s rays back toward you. That should serve as a reminder to protect all parts of your body, even the backside of your legs and other spots that may not directly face the sun. 

Even concrete, sand and asphalt can be reflective. Spread out on the grass or lay a blanket over your play space to reduce sun exposure.

Oh, and stick to the real thing.

Avoid fake sun, like tanning beds, to protect your skin. 

Indoor tanning isn’t a smart alternative to baking on the beach. Artificial UV rays can be just as dangerous as natural ones. In fact, using a tanning bed before age 30 in particular is linked to developing melanoma later in life.

If you crave a sunkissed glow, use sunless tanning products like bronzers, lotions and spray tans. Topical tanners are generally considered safe.

Like most of the steps involved in careful sun protection, sun-free bronzing can take more work, but the results will be worth it in the long run.

Being proactive about sun care now will help you reap the benefits of being outside without the harmful side effects of too much sun.