Some sun exposure can be healthy. You only need to be in the sun for 5–15 minutes with your face, arms, or legs uncovered (without sunscreen) 2–3 times a week to get the benefits. 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. But 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. One in 5 people will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime, and active-duty Service Members are at higher risk than civilians. The good news is, 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. UVA rays penetrate your skin more deeply and give you a tan, but they cause wrinkles and age spots. UVB rays help your body produce vitamin D. But they also cause sunburn, can damage the DNA in your skin cells, and are the main type of UV ray that leads to most skin cancers. 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 when the rays are strongest—1000 to 1600 in the summer (or year-round in the Southern U.S.). In the fall and winter (September–March), UV exposure is at its lowest. But the glare from snow can nearly double UV exposure, so if you’re going to be out in the snow, wear sunglasses and sunscreen. 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 too much sun. Like excessive sun exposure, tanning beds are also dangerous. Keep in mind that sun damage builds up, and even a few serious sunburns in your lifetime can increase your risk for skin cancer.
- Follow the UV Index guidelines. The National Weather Service calculates the daily UV Index to provide information about UV exposure. The UV Index scale takes into account seasonal weather changes, time of day, geographic latitude, and even atmospheric ozone depletion. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends using the following guidelines to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging effects:
- 0–2: Low UV Index – No protection is needed.
- 3–7: Moderate to high – Wear sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) when outside, and seek shade in the late morning through mid-afternoon, following the “shadow rule.”
- 8+: Very high to extreme – Wear sunscreen and protective clothing, including pants and long sleeves, a wide-brimmed hat if permitted by your uniform regs, and sunglasses. Seek shade during the middle of the day when your shadow is shorter than you.
Shadow rule: If your shadow is taller than you, your UV exposure is at the low end of your exposure. If it’s shorter than you, your UV exposure is at the higher end of your exposure and you should seek sunscreen and shade during the day.
- 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 allowed, 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—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 date 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 also 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 also get vitamin D from food sources such as fortified milk, salmon and other fatty fish, and egg yolks.