Seattleites endure rain, hail, and wind throughout much of the year, so when summer rolls around and the July heat sets in, our sun exposure naturally increases. Although summer months typically offer ideal weather conditions for spending time outdoors, the risks associated with ultraviolet (UV) exposure are also at their highest during this time.
While there are numerous risks from unprotected sun exposure, including damage to the eyes (such as cataracts and eyelid cancers), and suppression of the immune system, the most obvious risks are well-known: early aging of the skin and skin cancer.
Jennifer Gardner, assistant professor in the dermatology division of the University of Washington Medical Center (UWMC), said much of skin damage occurs early, though its severity does not often become evident until later in life.
“Intermittent sunburns, having sunburns as a child and teenager (sunburns early in life), exposure to UV light from tanning beds, and blistering sunburns play a role in the development of melanoma and other skin cancers,” Gardner said.
Not only does this kind of exposure contribute to skin cancer, but it can also cause photoaging. According to Gardner, UVA rays are primarily responsible for premature aging of the skin. These rays penetrate our skin not only from direct sunlight, but also from tanning beds and through car windshields. Signs to watch out for include freckling or brown sunspots (also called solar lentigines).
But what about getting a “daily dose of vitamin D?”
The answer is not as simple as one may think.
Gardner warns that necessary amounts of vitamin D “probably [vary] from person to person and [are] not predictable.”
“I never advise my patients to get a certain amount of sunshine for the purposes of getting their vitamin D. … [I tell] patients that I want them to have normal vitamin D levels, but I want them to eat it,” Gardner said. “My advice is in line with the recommendation of the American Academy of Dermatology that rather than trying to get vitamin D from exposure to a known carcinogen, the sun, they can get the same benefits by getting their vitamin D delivered through dietary means in vitamin-D rich foods, or fortified foods, or dietary supplements.”
Still, the reality is that we all spend time soaking up the sun’s rays.
Gardner offered some tips on how to ensure you stay as protected as possible:
1.) Apply sunscreen daily that is at least SPF 30, water-resistant, and broad spectrum (protects against both UVA and UVB rays).
2.) On extra sunny days, or days that your exposure will be high, apply sunscreen that is SPF 50-70.
3.) Reapply sunscreen every 1-2 hours, as well as after contact with water or sweat.
4.) Wear accessories like sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats to protect your eyes, face, ears, and the back of your neck.
5.) Chose clothing marked with a UPF (a unit of measurement for a piece of clothing’s level of sun protection). UPF 50 is a recommended level.
6.) Whenever possible, spend time in the shade rather than in direct sunlight.
According to Roy Colven, professor of medicine in the dermatology division of the UWMC, melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers, kills one American every hour.
Additionally, skin cancer is occurring more frequently in young people than ever before.
During our college years, Colven said, specifically as teenagers and as independent young adults, habits and attitudes are established in regards to our sun exposure.
“College years are a time when one establishes a lot of habits for the rest of adulthood,” Colven said. “It’s also a time when you don’t think about aging and cancer, as there are no immediate (other than sunburn) negative consequences of the exposure.”
Although the health risks associated with unprotected and prolonged sun exposure may seem irrelevant to young adults now, the time we spend in the sun causes our skin to age faster and earlier than it would otherwise, even though the physical damage may not be evident until years later.
“Sun protection isn’t only about preventing skin cancer,” Colven said. “It is also about preventing early skin aging from collagen and elastin breakdown. This works way better than lasers, surgery, or products to later fix already aged skin.”
Although November through February is the least dangerous period for Seattle citizens, sun protection is necessary year round. Certain activities, regardless of the time of year, call for increased sun safety measures. For example, visiting mountains, whether for a summer hike or a winter ski trip, requires additional precautions due to the higher elevation closer to the sun, and the high reflectivity of snow.
“Sun safety is year round,” Colven said. “Skin cancer and photoaging don’t occur from just one exposure; they occur over a lifetime.”
Reach writer Kara Patajo at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @karapatajo