The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has named July as Ultraviolet (UV) Safety Month. Overexposure to UV rays can cause numerous health issues. In addition to the risk of skin cancer, UV rays can cause macular degeneration, cataracts, skin growths, and suppression of the immune system. This month we spread awareness about how to protect yourself against the effects of UV radiation exposure.
What Is UV Radiation?
Most individuals don’t realize that UV light is a form of radiation. By definition, radiation is the emission of energy from any source. Radiation has many different types, but UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation. The main source of UV radiation is the sun, although it can come from man-made sources such as tanning beds and welding torches. Radiation exists across a spectrum from very high energy, such as x-rays and gamma rays, to very low energy, such as radio waves. UV rays have more energy than visible light, but not as much energy as x-rays.
UV radiation is at its highest when and where the sun’s rays are the strongest. This means that UV levels will be highest around noon on a clear sunny day, even more so during the summer months. UV levels will also be highest near surfaces that reflect sunlight, such as snow or sand, and it’s more pervasive at higher altitudes.
Risk Factors for Harmful Effects of UV Radiation:
People of all skin colors are potentially at risk for sunburn and other harmful effects of UV radiation, so always protect yourself. Be especially careful if you have:
- pale skin
- blond, red, or light brown hair
- been treated for skin cancer
- a family member who has had skin cancer
If you take medications, ask your health care professional about sun-care precautions. Some medications may increase sun sensitivity. Even on an overcast day, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can get through the clouds. Stay in the shade as much as possible.
The FDA is committed to ensuring that safe and effective sunscreen products are available for consumer use. Because the body of scientific evidence linking UVA exposure to skin cancers and other harms has grown significantly in recent years, in a 2019 proposed rule on sunscreens, the FDA recommended a new requirement that all sunscreen products with SPF values of 15 and above must be broad spectrum, and that as the SPF of these products increases, broad spectrum protection increases as well. The FDA also proposed changes to the labeling of SPF values to make it easier for consumers to compare and choose sunscreen, and to raising the maximum proposed SPF value from SPF 50+ to SPF 60+.
How Does UV Radiation Affect Skin Cancer?
One the most dangerous sources of UV radiation is artificial UV lights like the type found in indoor tanning beds. The amount and type of UV radiation depends on the specific lamps used in the bed, how long a person stays in the bed, and how many times the person uses it. Most modern UV tanning beds emit mostly UVA rays, with the rest being UVB. The American Academy of Dermatology reports that indoor tanning may be responsible for an estimated 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States annually.
According to the American Cancer Society, an estimated 5.4 million basal skin cancers are diagnosed annually, and nearly 3.3 million people are diagnosed with squamous cell skin cancers annually. Even more troublesome is that many people are diagnosed with more than one skin cancer type. Invasive melanoma represents about 1% of all skin cancer cases, but it accounts for the majority of skin cancer deaths with an estimated 87,110 new cases of invasive melanoma annually and 9,730 deaths annually. Overexposure to UV radiation can also cause eye cataracts, eye damage, skin aging, growths on the skin, and immune system suppression.
Use these seven tips to stay safe in the sun:
- Wear protective clothing. If possible, wear long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and hats. Hats with wide brims not only cover your face, but they also protect other easy-to-forget spots like your ears and your scalp.
- Make sunglasses your favorite accessory. Sunglasses shield your eyes from UV rays that can cause eye problems, like cataracts. Pricey sunglasses don’t guarantee better protection. Look for a pair that says it blocks 99% or 100% of UVB and UVA rays.
- Limit your sun time, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. That’s when the sun’s rays are at their strongest. Plan your outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the afternoon. You can also find or create shade during those hours. At the park? Sit under a tree. At the beach? Bring a beach umbrella. Just a regular day? Plan indoor lunch breaks or schedule nap times during those hours.
- Use sunscreen and use it right. UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. To protect your skin, put sunscreen on every part of your body that will be exposed to the sun at least 15 minutes before going outside, even if it’s cloudy out. Sunscreen is most effective when used with other sun protection methods, like those mentioned above.
When choosing sunscreen, pick one with at least SPF 15 and that offers broad-spectrum protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. One coat of sunscreen doesn’t last all day. You need to reapply sunscreen every two hours, and don’t forget to put it on your hands and feet and to reapply after swimming or sweating.
- Say no to tanning. There’s no such thing as a safe tan, whether you’re inside or outside. It’s a myth that indoor tanning is a safer alternative to sun tanning. Tanning beds, tanning booths, and sunlamps expose you to intense UV radiation, which increases your risk of skin cancer and skin damage.
- Give up the vitamin D excuse. Tanning isn’t a safe way to get vitamin D. If you’re concerned about your vitamin D levels, talk to your doctor about the sources that are best for you.
- Get to know your skin. Skin cancer is easier to treat when caught early, so get to know your skin and watch for changes. Look for new skin markings, like moles, bumps, scaly spots, or places where your skin has changed color. Watch moles for changes in size, texture, color, or shape. Take note if a mole has uneven edges, differences in color, or one half that is different than the other. You can also watch for moles, sores, or growths that continue to bleed, won’t heal, or look different from any other growth you may have. Talk to your doctor if you notice any of these changes.
Disclaimer: Health experts suggest that you talk to your doctor before you start, change or modify your medications, lifestyle or current treatment regimen.
Picture credit: July Is UV Safety Month (fleyedocs.com)