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Having Safe Fun in the Florida Sun

July 26, 2022

Summer is a season that people look forward to each year. It is the time when kids are out of school and families are taking summer vacations. It is also the time when everyone should seek to minimize risk of sun-damaged skin, which can have serious long-term health effects. After all, the traditional “Dog Days of Summer” (from July 3 to August 11) bring the sunniest, hottest and most unbearable times of the year and right in the middle of your spending more time outdoors. Although staying out of the sun is by far the most effective way to avoid skin damage, the vast majority of people will need a more reasonable strategy for dealing with sun exposure.

Melanin Absorbs UV Rays to Produce a Tan

The scorching summer sun in the Northern Hemisphere is a direct result of the Earth’s tilt that causes the sun’s rays to strike the surface at a more direct angle. Since the tilt also brings longer periods of daylight, it makes it easy to accidentally soak up more rays than you may have intended to. Anytime you are out in the sun, your body produces a natural substance called melanin. But even though your skin contains this protective pigment, too much of the sun’s ultraviolet light can still injure cells. Dermatologists often use different names for the damage that the sun can cause to skin cells, including photoaging, solar damage, photodamage, or simply sun damage.  

According to MedlinePlus, people tan because sunlight causes the skin to produce more melanin and darken. “As new skin cells are produced and move to the outer layer, tanned skin sheds off” says Michael Steppie Dermatologist and President of Associates in Dermatology. “However, any overexposure can cause a painful and unwanted sunburn.” Although melanin is the body’s natural substance that absorbs light from ultraviolet rays and redistributes it to the outer layers, UV rays that are allowed to penetrate deeper in the skin can severely damage or kill cells.  If you looked at sunburned skin under a microscope, you would see exactly how the sun’s rays can damage both blood vessels and skin cells. Unfortunately, frequent overexposure to UV rays over the years can cause skin cancer.

Sun Safety to Avoid Damaging Sunburn

For people living in the Sunshine State, sunlight is the most common source of exposure to ultraviolet light. Since a majority of skin cancers are related to UV radiation, limiting the amount of time unprotected skin is exposed can help to mitigate sunburn and significantly reduce skin cancer risk. Since anyone can take positive steps to reduce their risk of sunburn, skin cancer, premature skin aging and eye damage, the Office of the Surgeon General issued a Call to Action to various sectors across the nation to address skin cancer as a major public health issue. “The Department of Human Health and Human Services estimates that nearly 5 million people in the United States will require treatment for skin cancers this year,” Dr. Steppie warned. “That includes around 9,000 deaths at a medical cost that exceeds $8 billion [annually].”

According to the HHS, most skin cancers can be prevented but people from every sector of society have an important role to play in reversing current trends. An executive summary of the Surgeon General’s Call to Action establishes five strategic goals to support every community’s skin cancer prevention effort, including:

  • Increase the opportunities for sun protection in outdoor settings.
  • Provide individuals with the knowledge they need to make informed, healthy choices about ultraviolet radiation exposure.
  • Promote policies that advance our nation’s goal of preventing skin cancer.
  • Reduce the harmful effects from indoor tanning.
  • Strengthen the research, surveillance, monitoring, and evaluation related to skin cancer prevention.

For over a decade, Associates in Dermatology and Dr. Michael Steppie have supported and promoted safe dermatology for all Central Florida communities. “It is important that you never ignore any unexplained skin blemish,” says Steppie. “Skin cancer is not something that only happens during the summer months and any sunburn should be viewed as a preventable radiation burn.”

Does Exposure to Sunlight Increase Vitamin D?

Routine sun exposure was encouraged as the natural way to stimulate production of vitamin D for many years. An article published in Dermato-Endocrinology explained that during exposure to sunlight, 7-dehydrocholesterol in the skin absorbs UV-B radiation and is converted to pre-vitamin D3, which in turn isomerizes in vitamin D3. However, according to the United States Dietary Association (USDA), the bulk of the population is not vitamin-D deficient. In fact, the chief of Dermatologic Surgery at Yale Medicine concluded it definitely is not a good idea to get your vitamin D from the sun and under no circumstances can the use of a tanning bed or tanning in general be justified. Today, both dermatologists and endocrinologists recommend consuming vitamin-D fortified foods and supplements.

The Florida sun can be brutal year round, which explains why the state has among the highest rates of skin cancer in the nation. Although there is not a cookie-cutter answer to “how much is too much” sun, it is important for you to remember that higher levels of UV radiation can burn your skin within minutes. Since anyone can get skin cancer (including those with naturally darker complexions) it is crucial to protect all exposed areas. This includes paying special attention to your nose, cheeks, ears, forehead, neck, shoulders, eyes, feet, and toes. It cannot be overstated the need for everyone to D-bunk the vitamin D myth and use an effective sunscreen as well as wear protective clothing. Since the sun's UV rays are strongest during the middle of the day, it is important to remember the risk for sunburn increases during those peak hours.

Awareness About the Dangers of Too Much Sun

The fact that many Americans lack awareness about the dangers associated with too much sun exposure is concerning to Orlando dermatologists. Fact is most skin cancers are at least partially caused by exposure to ultraviolet light, so limiting sun exposure is the easiest way to reduce skin cancer risk. This means it is extremely important to build healthy habits for sun protection early on when a child is more receptive and hasn’t developed bad outdoor habits. After all, sunburns during childhood are a clear risk factor for developing skin cancers later in life. This means interventions for good skincare and the practice of preventing overexposure to the sun relies on all of us.

Communitywide sun-safety interventions can be designed for specific settings like schools, childcare centers, recreational departments, and outdoor events as well as outdoor occupational settings.

As previously mentioned, staying out of the sun is the best way to avoid skin damage. Nonetheless, you can protect your skin from the sun’s damaging effects and still enjoy time spent outdoors. Other precautions include the application of a sunscreen or sunblock, wearing protective clothing (long sleeves, pants and wide-brimmed hats), and avoiding direct exposure when UV rays are strongest. There are common misconceptions about using sunscreen. For starters, using sunscreen to protect from sunburn is not the most important reason for wearing it; sunscreen reduces damage from the sun even for those people who do not burn easily. It is important to remember that a sunburn is an immediate reaction to overexposure but sun damage can continually occur over your lifetime.

Tips for Preventing UV-Related Skin Cancer

The sun’s radiation is an invisible force of potentially dangerous and damaging energy. Since one blistering sunburn can double your chances of developing melanoma later in life, the following tips and guidelines will help you limit your exposure to damaging UV and reduce your risk of developing a serious skin condition:

  • Any skin types can develop skin cancer, including people who tan easily or have a naturally darker complexion.
  • Even on cloudy days and at all times of the year, generously apply sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin.
  • Use a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays and has a sun protection factor of at least SPF 30 and preferably SPF 50.
  • Apply approximately one ounce of sunscreen (about a shot glass full) at least 15 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours as well as after swimming or sweating.
  • Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on all babies over the age of six months.
  • Wear a long-sleeved shirt, pants, a wide-brimmed hat, preferably sun-protective clothing and swimwear carrying a UPF 50+ label*, and UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Seek shade whenever possible. The sun’s rays are the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. so try to avoid direct exposure during those hours.
  • Water, snow and sand can reflect and magnify the damaging rays of the sun, which increases your chance of sunburn. While outside or at the beach, stay in the shade from an umbrella and use a UPF 50+.
  • Avoid tanning beds. Fact is there is no safe way to get a tan through UV exposure without increasing your risk for skin cancer. Using a tanning bed before age 35 can increase your risk for melanoma by 75%.
  • Be aware that certain prescription medications and over-the-counter drugs can increase your skin’s sensitivity to sunlight.
  • Sun-proof your car windows with UVA-filtering window glass or tinted film.

*UPF measures the amount of UV radiation that can penetrate fabric and reach your skin. Any fabric that allows less than 2 percent UV transmission is labeled UPF 50+.

Source: Melanoma Research Foundation, American Academy of Dermatology.

Nearly 90% of cutaneous melanoma is related to excessive ultraviolet exposure. That means it is important to take preemptive steps toward preventing any occurrence of sun-related disease over the course of your lifetime. This includes using adequate eye protection. Eyewear that absorbs UV rays gives you the most protection and a wide-brimmed hat or cap can help block about half of UV rays to help prevent eye damage.

How and When to Apply Sunscreen

Sunscreens are a highly effective intervention when used properly and are safe to use on children over the age of six months. If you plan to be outdoors for more than thirty minutes, you should apply sunscreen (minimum SPF 30) approximately 20 minutes ahead of time. Even though a sunscreen product maybe labelled as All Day, you should reapply every couple of hours or anytime you get wet or perspire heavily. This includes covering all exposed areas of skin, including your ears, lips, face and back of your hands. Women should apply sunscreen under their makeup and shouldn’t skimp. A generous layer (a shot glass full) should be smoothed on rather than rubbed into the skin. Moreover, don’t wait until you are in the sun to put on sunscreen. If you perspire, the moisture on your skin can render the product less effective.

To reduce skin cancer risk in a community, people in the community must help to spread the most current information so the population is able to make better choices about sun protection. A researcher at the Cleveland Clinic estimated a 72% reduction in the number of skin cancer cases seen later in life if sunscreen were used regularly from childhood through age 18. Although stopping the ever-increasing incidence of skin cancers will not be a small task, implementing good sun-protection strategies and encouraging the routine application of sunscreen products can be most effective when used in combination with other methods. If you have too much fun in the Florida sun and have blistering red skin, you should seek the advice of a dermatologist. If there are no blisters but a reddish discomfort that stings or itches, you can visit the Skin Cancer Foundation webpage for Ways to Treat a Sunburn.

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