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The Risks Of Sun Exposure And How To Protect Your Skin This Summer

Did you know that sunlight and tanning beds are classified as carcinogens by global health experts? Sun exposure is in the same danger class as tobacco, asbestos and benzene. According to the EPA, our ozone layer is depleting, causing us to lose our atmosphere’s natural protection from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. We can’t avoid exposure altogether, but it’s important to understand the risks and know what precautions to take.

Skin cancer and damage

According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, each year, more new skin cancer cases are diagnosed in the U.S. than prostate, breast, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will suffer from skin cancer over his lifetime. Sun exposure is the most easily preventable cause of skin cancer.

Actinic keratoses are premalignant skin growths that occur on body areas exposed to the sun. These reddish, rough growths are a risk factor for some kinds of carcinoma. 

Sun exposure also causes thickening and wrinkling of the skin. This premature-aging happens gradually, even years after sun exposure, so we often think of it as a normal part of aging. Much of the skin changes we attribute to growing older are caused by the sun’s UV rays. 

Overexposure to UV radiation can weaken the immune system, reducing the skin’s ability to protect against cancers and infections.

Eye damage

Ultraviolet radiation increases the risk of cataracts, which can cause blindness or require surgery. Sun damage to the eyes can also cause pterygium, and macular degeneration, both of which affect vision. 

Protecting yourself from UV radiation

Staying out of the sun is the best way to avoid damage, but that’s not always practical. So here are some precautions to take when you go out:

  • Do not let your skin burn, and especially protect your children’s skin from burning.  Sunburns, especially in childhood, significantly increase your risk for cancer.
  • Be extra careful around water, snow and sand. All three reflect and increase the sun ray’s rays.
  • Wear sunscreen. Experts say that putting on sunscreen should be a normal part of your morning routine, like brushing your teeth. This is especially true if you work or spend time outdoors. An SPF of at least 15 will block 93 percent of UV rays. You want to filter out both UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Stay indoors when the sun is high, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.. The suns UV rays are strongest during this time. If you’re not sure what time it is or how strong the sun’s rays are, take the shadow test: If your shadow is shorter than you are, seek shelter.
  • Wear protective clothing. A wide-brimmed hat (not a baseball cap), long sleeves and long pants will filter the UV rays. Look for lightweight clothing that will be comfortable in the heat, but that is tightly woven enough that you can’t see through it in the light.
  • Wear sunglasses. Specifically look for glasses that say they offer 99 to 100 percent UV protection.

Understanding sunscreen

SPF stands for sun protection factor. The number indicates how much protection you are being offered from UVB rays. You want a product with an SPF of at least 15. For UVA protection, look for the following ingredients: Mexoryl, Parsol 1789, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or avobenzone. Here are some more sunscreen tips to help keep you safe:

  • Sunscreen should be applied at least 20 minutes before you go outdoors.
  • Make sure to cover your ears, lips, face and back of your hands. Women should apply under their makeup.
  • If you’re staying outdoors, reapply every three hours; more if you are swimming, perspiring heavily or wearing insect repellant.
  • Be generous. You should use at least a tablespoon of sunscreen on your face, and a shot glass full on your body. 
  • You should know that sunscreens lose potency over time. If yours is more than a year or two old, throw it away and get a fresh supply.


Lauren Haas is a writer who specializes in finding the fun! Lauren was the publisher of the St. Louis Area Family Gazette for eight years, and now writes freelance articles on St. Louis events and attractions, budget travel, arts and entertainment and fitness topics. Her work can be found at

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