The sun can do much more damage than simply give you a painful sunburn. Dermatologists (skin doctors) say that prolonged exposure to sunlight causes brown spots; red, scaly spots; drying and wrinkling; and, worst of all, skin cancer.
But how do you avoid the sun? That's tricky. Sometimes, your day at the beach may turn out to be much more sunburned than sand-filled. If your skin doesn't produce the protective melanin pigment well or if you're exposed to the sun before enough pigment can be manufactured and dispersed, the ultraviolet rays kill skin cells. Even a mild sunburn that produces only a little redness destroys the top layer of your skin, just as if you had seared it with a hot iron.
Despite these increasingly well-known dangers of sun exposure, many of us, on occasion, get lazy when it comes to protecting our skin or just can't resist the myth that getting some color from the sun makes us look healthier. On the next few pages, learn some ways to easily minimize sun exposure so you can spend time outdoors safely.
About one million Americans were diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in 2005. In fact, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, the disease makes up one in three cancers diagnosed in this country. Fortunately, there is plenty you can do to protect your skin from the damaging effects of the sun.
One of the best things you can do is cover up. The sun's rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Stay indoors during this time, or if you must be outdoors, cover up and wear sunscreen. The Skin Cancer Foundation says that hats and clothing made of dark, tightly woven materials absorb ultraviolet light better than cotton fabrics in lighter shades. Dry fabrics offer more protection than wet ones.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. Be sure to spread it on thick enough: Applying only a thin coating of a sunscreen can reduce the effectiveness of the product by as much as 50 percent. Waterproof sunscreen is best if you'll be swimming.
Apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before exposure to allow the skin to absorb it. And reapply it every two hours -- more often if you're sweating or getting wet. If you have fair skin, you might even want to begin preparing for sun exposure the night before by putting on a layer of sunscreen before bed; this will allow it to be thoroughly absorbed into the skin's outer layer. Then apply the usual coat of sunscreen the next day, about a half hour before you go outside.
The sun can also burn the sensitive skin on the lips just as easily as it fires the rest of your body. At worst, the damage can lead to skin cancer. Use a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15 and reapply often.
Too often, people forget to protect sensitive spots like the tops of the ears, the hairline, the "V" of the chest, the nose and the hands. The Skin Cancer Foundation says 80 percent of skin cancers occur on the head, neck and hands. The Foundation therefore recommends that you wear a hat made of a tightly woven fabric such as canvas rather than one of straw and that you wear a sunscreen with an SPF of 15 on your hands and other exposed areas.
Protruding horizontal surfaces like the nose present special sun protection problems. Lifeguards often wear zinc oxide paste on their nose, but it only provides an SPF of about seven. Instead, apply a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15, let it soak in a few minutes, and then, for maximum protection, apply the zinc oxide paste. And if you'll be going shoeless, you'd be wise to use the same level of protection on the tops of your feet.
Keep in mind that even umbrellas or shade trees provide only moderate protection from ultraviolet light, and they don't protect you from rays reflected off sand, snow, concrete and many other surfaces. Ultraviolet light isn't reflected by water, but it can easily penetrate water, so being in the water doesn't protect you, either. Be careful to protect surfaces, such as the under part of the chin, that are especially vulnerable to reflected light.
Doctors can't say it enough: There is no such thing as a "healthy tan." But while sunbathing is a no-no for everyone, it's an especially bad idea for fair-skinned people. Many of them can't tan anyway and only risk getting a serious burn.
If you refuse to give up sunbathing, take it slowly and let your skin gradually build up melanin to provide some protection. And don't use tanning oils, which enhance the effects of ultraviolet rays and worsen a burn. You may as well be slathering yourself with cooking oil.
Take care on cool, cloudy days. Damaging rays aren't inhibited by clouds, and you can still get burned because ultraviolet light can penetrate cloud cover. Take precautions even when the sun isn't shining brightly.
Don't let the snow fool you either. During the winter months, many winter recreationists, such as snow skiers, learn the hard way that high altitudes (which have little atmosphere to filter out the sun's rays), blustery winds, and white snow can be a painful combination. Cover up with appropriate clothing and a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15. Don't forget to wear sunglasses, too, to avoid "sunburning" your eyes.
Some drugs, such as tetracycline and diuretics, can make your skin extra sensitive to sun exposure and increase the risk of sunburn. Some herbal medicines, such as St. John's Wort, have a similar effect. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about this possibility if you are taking any medications.
In search of "safe" tanning, many people resort to tanning booths or tanning beds. While tanning companies will tell you their light machines produce only UVA radiation, the nonburning type, UVA rays are far from safe. In fact, UVA rays penetrate the skin even deeper than UVB rays do. Over time, exposure to UVA rays can make skin dry and wrinkled and increase the risk of skin cancer.
As you can see, protecting your skin from sunburn isn't just to avoid discomfort. Too much sun exposure can contribute to dry, wrinkly skin, brown spots, and, worst of all, skin cancer. Unfortunately, there are no home remedies to cure the damage from sunburn, so always be careful when in the sun.
A new study shows people don't apply enough sunscreen. HowStuffWorks looks at what the right amount is and real-world tips for applying it properly.