Hey guess what – summer is already here! This weekend, grills will be fired up, picnics will be unpacked, boats will be dropped in, and hordes of people will descend on beaches up and down the Shore. We’re also a month away from the longest day of the year and the hottest three-month stretch. Everything we love about summer revolves around the longer, warmer days and nights. Unfortunately, an overwhelming majority of those activities happen outside, under the hot sun. Which means the chances of having your own melanoma blog one day just went up - if you’re not careful.
I will spare everyone the preachy “don’t end up like me” shtick and get right into how you can best put yourself in position to avoid long-term skin damage that can ultimately lead to melanoma.
First, what are the important things to know?
- The sun is at its hottest between 10a and 3p. This DOES NOT mean you are OK the rest of the day, especially beach days that begin before 10 and end after 3. It means that during the extended lunchtime hour, extra vigilance is needed. Reapply sunscreen. Sit under the umbrella or a shady tree for a while. Give yourself and your skin a break.
- Most sun damage occurs before the age of 18. For goodness sakes, make sure your kids are covered up and/or use sunscreen effectively. I have mentioned it before; this isn’t an excuse for responsible adults to irresponsibly ignore sun protection. You are not just setting the right example for your children, you are keeping yourself healthy.
- Getting a “base tan” is NOT sun protection. You just happen to be a darker shade of exposed. While it is true certain skin types are more susceptible to damage from the sun (sorry, me fellow Irishmen), it DOES NOT mean once you get that initial tan, your skin is protected and sunscreen isn’t necessary. The sun can do just as much damage after you neglected to protect your skin the first time as it can before you neglected to protect it the first time. This includes anyone with naturally tan or dark skin, too.
- Stay the HELL away from tanning beds. This goes for those who believe in the base tan, and the ones who are trying to extend that summer look well into football season. 33 states have some form of tanning bed restriction for minors, and even the FDA is putting warning labels on them. Not putting on sunscreen when you know better may be dumb, but getting into a tanning bed is stupid. Don’t do it.
OK smart guy, so HOW do I stay safe?
- This is restating the obvious, but wear sunscreen. Not SPF4 Bronzer, either. A 30 SPF will keep you safe for a few hours. Anything under 15 is no longer considered sun protection by the FDA. Also, higher numbers don’t give you exponentially better protection; if anything, there are diminishing returns above 30. They won’t hurt, but don’t expect SPF 90 to work three times better than 30. It’s negligible. Stick with SPF 30.
- Remember “Broad Spectrum” and “UVA”. SPF measures only UVB ray protection; UVA protection must be obtained from different minerals (or chemicals) added to the sunscreen. The FDA has FINALLY updated the labeling on sunscreens (see above link), so you should find the shelves stocked with better labeled products this summer. If it says “Broad Spectrum”, then it includes UVA protection, too. Note – there isn’t a SPF-like standard measure for UVA measurement, it either has it or it doesn’t. Make sure you see one of those phrases on your sunscreen bottle.
- Most people know you are supposed to reapply sunscreen every couple of hours. Very few do it consistently; heck, I don’t reapply an embarrassingly high number of times. There are plenty of excuses, so try and stick with a manageable plan. For example: apply before leaving the house (while getting dressed is the perfect time), reapply before eating lunch, and if the day is long enough, reapply when you have that mid-afternoon snack or drink refill. Reapply before eating, as afterwards the kids (and adults) will be eager to start having fun or falling asleep in a beach chair. Either way, the chances of getting sunscreen out and on everybody post-food has greatly diminished. Find your own method based on your typical summer days, as long as you have some cadence or routine. Share suggestions in the comments below.
- The spray and squirt on sunscreens, while better than nothing, are much less effective than lotions. Especially if you don’t actually rub them in after spraying; they wear or wash off even quicker than typical sunscreen. In a pinch, or with a fussy kid, they will do, but get you and your children in the habit of rubbing sunscreen in, not spraying it on. Oh yea, they’re expensive, too, for the coverage provided. If you are going to spend extra on sunscreen, make it the good kind, not the convenient stuff.
- Don’t make the false assumption sun protection is just for pale white people who sit out sunning themselves. Sunscreen isn’t just for the shore trips and pool days; you can easily get burnt quickly at home working outside. The sun is just as hot in your backyard or on the basketball court as it is at the 30th Street beach. Sun exposure and skin damage can happen anytime, anywhere, to any race or ethnicity. Make it a habit to apply before any outdoor activity.