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How to stay safe in the sun

July 30, 2020

With seasonably warm weather, and after months of COVID-19 lockdowns, many people are enjoying the outdoorseven flocking to beaches to beat the heat. While there are health benefits to sunlight—from boosting the body’s vitamin D supply to fending off depression during long dark winters—the sun’s rays can be equally damaging with too much exposure resulting in wrinkles and, even worse, skin cancer.

In addition to masks and social distancing, remember to practice sun safety when you are outdoors, including the use of sunscreen, a wide brimmed hat, and SPF or tightly woven clothing. Safety measures are especially important for protecting children and infants from sunburn, dehydration, and future risk of skin cancer.

What is SPF? Does the number make a difference?

When you’re deciding which sunscreen to buy, do you ever wonder how high the SPF (sun protection factor) should be for the best protection? The SPF label means that a product blocks and absorbs UVB rays which are the main cause of sunburn and skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which blocks 97% of the sun's UVB rays. Higher-number SPFs block slightly more of the sun's UVB rays, but no sunscreen can block 100 percent of the sun's UVB rays.

Sunscreen Decoded

  • Choose a sunscreen with “broad spectrum” that can protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Look for “water resistant” sunscreen but note that it lasts either 40 or 80 minutes.
  • Most people don’t use enough sunscreen. You should liberally apply sunscreen to all exposed skin.
  • Reapply sunscreen approximately every two hours when outdoors, even when it is cloudy.

Reducing the Risk of Skin Cancer

“Many skin cancers can be prevented by simply staying away from tanning beds and refraining from being a sun worshipper,” said Dr. Richard Arenas, chief of Surgical Oncology for the Baystate Regional Cancer Program. While everyone is at risk of sunburn due to exposure, babies are particularly vulnerable because their skin is more delicate. All it take is just a few blistering sunburns as a child to more than double the chances of developing a potentially-deadly melanoma (skin cancer) later in life.

Protecting Your Baby from the Sun

Babies are never too young to protect them from the damaging effects of the sun, notes Dr. John O’Reilly of Baystate General Pediatrics.

“Protective clothing and keeping your baby in the shade are good first steps in protecting your young infant, but sunblock is needed for those areas of the baby’s body that remain exposed to the sun. Hypoallergenic sunblock that contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin and may be the best choice for babies under 6 months. Over 6 months any sunblock can be used,” he said.

Dr. O’Reilly and the American Academy of Pediatrics offer the following prevention tips for keeping babies safe from the sun:

  • Babies younger than 6 months should be kept out of direct and indirect sunlight because of the risk of heat stroke. Avoid having a baby out between 10 am and 2 pm when the sun’s rays are strongest.
  • Keep babies in the shade as much as possible. For example, they should be moved under a tree, beach umbrella, or stroller canopy. However, it is important to note that on reflective surfaces, an umbrella or canopy may only reduce UVR exposure by 50%.
  • Dress babies in lightweight cotton clothing with long sleeves and long pants and a sun hat with a wide brim.
  • Sunscreen may be applied to babies younger than 6 months on small areas of the body, such as the face, if protective clothing and shade are not available. Test on a small area and if a rash develops, talk with your child's doctor. 

Dr. O'Reilly noted that sun safety isn't something only for a day out at the beach. Parents should take these precautions whenever their children are playing outside.

Want more information about caring for your child? We offer a variety of educational and support programs for parents and families. 

Sun Safety Tips for Adults

Adults also need to follow many of the same recommendations for children, noted Dr. Arenas, who recommends adults avoid being outdoors in the sunlight for too long, especially in the middle of the day when UV light is most intense. In addition to seeking the shade, Dr. Arenas recommends the following tips to stay sun-safe:

  • Keep your shirt on.
  • Put on the sunscreen.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your head.
  • Wear sunglasses that block at least 99% of UV light in order to protect your eyes.

Are the chemicals in sunscreen dangerous?

Recent studies by the FDA and researchers at Baystate have shown that chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed into the blood stream. Of the chemicals in the sunscreens tested for, oxybenzone was found to be absorbed within 30 minutes and reached the highest levels in blood. Oxybenzone, also listed as benzophenone-3 on labels, is a chemical that absorbs light and protects the skin from the harmful effects of UV radiation.

Most is excreted from our bodies within one to two days, and therefore, exposure to it is limited to the periods of use. What this tells us is that oxybenzone is an effective sunscreen that protects from skin cancer, but can also be absorbed into our bodies. As a result, there is an ongoing debate regarding the use of products containing this class of chemicals.

If you are concerned about using sunscreen with oxybenzone, you can choose a sunscreen with alternative ingredients generally considered safe such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Learn more about skin cancer.