When the summer sun’s shining, there’s nothing wrong with heading outside to “catch some rays”—in moderation. The sun helps your body make vitamin D, which is good for your bones and boosts serotonin, a hormone that improves mood, energy, and focus. You need to be in the sun for as little as 5–15 minutes with your face, arms, or legs uncovered (without sunscreen) 2–3 times a week for your body to make enough vitamin D for good health. More exposure puts you at greater risk for skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the United States.
Skin cancer is caused by two types of ultraviolet rays: UVA and UVB. UVA rays, the primary tanning rays, penetrate your skin more deeply and cause wrinkles and age spots. UVB rays, which cause sunburn, are also the type that helps your body produce vitamin D. You can protect your skin from both with these tips:
- Limit your time in the sun. Seek shade whenever you can, and try to avoid sun exposure during midday—1000 to 1600 in the summer—when the rays are strongest. (Avoid tanning beds too.) Even though sitting in the sun can be relaxing, and many people like having a tan, the risks of skin cancer far outweigh the benefits of getting some sun. And sun damage is cumulative; even a few serious sunburns can increase your risk for skin cancer.
- Use sunscreen early and often. Aim to use about an ounce—enough to fill a shot glass—of sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher for your entire body. Apply sunscreen 15–30 minutes before you go outside and reapply it every 2 hours or so. Also, check the expiration date. After 3 years, the active ingredients in sunscreen start to break down. If your sunscreen’s expiration date isn’t on the bottle, check the box it came in and write it on with a permanent marker.
- Cover up. Wear protective clothing, including a hat, long-sleeved shirt, and pants when you’re outside—especially if you’re working in the sun. And remember, the sun protection of clothing decreases when your clothes are wet.
- Protect your eyes, especially if they’re blue or green. Wear sunglasses that cover the skin around your eyes to help prevent eye damage. When choosing sunglasses, check the label to make sure they block 100% of UV rays (also called broad-spectrum protection).
- Don’t rely on sun exposure to get your vitamin D. You can get vitamin D from food sources, such as fortified milk, salmon and other fatty fish, and egg yolks, as well as supplements.
- Avoid exposing infants to the sun. If you’re going to be outside for more than a couple hours with your baby (younger than 6 months), make sure he or she is well covered—by shade and clothing.
About 9,500 Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer (the most common type) every day, affecting more than 3 million people each year. If you think “that can’t happen to me,” think again: 1 in 5 people will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime. You can protect yourself and your family from the sun’s harmful rays while still enjoying the great outdoors and its many benefits for mind, body, and spirit.