Some sun exposure can be healthy—you only 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. In that time, 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. However, more sun exposure puts you at greater risk for skin cancer, which is the most common form of cancer in the U.S.
About 9,500 Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer 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, and active-duty Military Service Members are at higher risk for skin cancer than civilians. The good news is that 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.
There are two types of ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVA and UVB. UVB rays help your body produce vitamin D, and they cause sunburn. UVA rays penetrate your skin more deeply and give you a tan, but they cause wrinkles and age spots. To protect your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer, follow 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. 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. Like excessive sun exposure, tanning beds are also a danger. Keep in mind sun damage builds up, and even a few serious sunburns in your lifetime can increase your risk for skin cancer.
- 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. If it’s authorized, keep your sleeves down on your cammies when working outside in the sun. If sleeves-down isn’t authorized, be sure to use sunscreen.
- 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, or more often if you’re swimming or sweating. Also, check the expiration date on your sunscreen because its active ingredients start to break down after 3 years. Tip: If you buy sunscreen with the expiration printed only on the box or wrapper, use a permanent marker to write the date somewhere on the bottle. Store it in a cool, dry place too.
- Wear sunglasses, especially if you have light eyes. It’s important to 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). In deployed or operational settings, make sure your sunglasses are on the Approved Protective Eyewear List® (APEL) developed by the U.S. Army.
- Don’t rely on sun exposure to get your vitamin D. In the U.S., most people can get enough vitamin D from their diet. You can get vitamin D from food sources such as fortified milk, salmon and other fatty fish, and egg yolks, as well as supplements.