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Fun in the Sun? Think Skin Safety!

older man at the beach applies a generous amount of sunscreen to his bare shoulders

Hurray for sunny days! Living in the Pacific Northwest brings beautiful water, mountains, trees, and fun events; however, we cannot forget about ultraviolet (UV) radiation and sun exposure. And it’s important to know that, even on cloudy days, your skin is at risk for damage due to the sun’s rays, as a high percentage of UV light can penetrate through the clouds. When your skin is exposed to the sun, you may not see redness or sunburn but your skin is affected by the sun’s rays.

There are two types of ultraviolet rays—UVA and UVB:

  • UVA rays cause skin aging and eye damage and can affect a body’s ability to fight off illness. UVA rays also contribute to the risk of skin cancer.
  • UVB rays are responsible for producing sunburn. The UVB rays also play the greatest role in causing skin cancers, including malignant melanoma—a deadly black mole form of skin cancer.

Many people love the appearance of a tan; in fact a lot of commercials and ads send the message that you need to have the “glow” to look healthy. The truth is that you cannot sit in the sun without some skin damage. There is no such thing as a “healthy tan.” Tanning beds also emit UV radiation, and tanning beds cause the same skin damage as the sun.

Some people ask about Sun Protection Factor (SPF) products. SPF is a number that tells you how long the sun’s UV radiation would take to redden your skin when using the product exactly as directed, versus if you were out in the sun without any sunscreen. For instance:

  • In an ideal situation, if you use a SPF 30 product, it would take you 30 times longer to sustain a sunburn compared to not wearing a sunscreen. SPF 30 allows about three percent of UVB rays that affect your skin, or about 97 percent protection.
  • If you use a SPF 50 product, it allows about two percent of the rays to affect your skin, or about 98 percent protection.

People with darker natural pigments in their skin are not immune to the sun’s effects. Keep in mind that darker skin may make it more difficult to see skin changes, like skin cancer.

When you are out in the sun without using a SPF product, your skin goes unprotected, causing damage that leads to acceleration of aging, especially the skin, and risk of sun cancer as well as melasma (hyperpigmentation), a condition in which brown patches appear on the skin—often the face, neck, and forearms. This can also occur due to hormonal changes.

Some ask about Vitamin D and sun exposure. Vitamin D is made from the cholesterol in your skin when it’s exposed to sun, so some folks say you need some sun every day. It’s important to note, that even if you are not able to get out in the sun, or need to limit your exposure, foods such as cod liver oil, swordfish, salmon, canned tuna, beef liver, egg yolks, and sardines are high in Vitamin D and come without the sun exposure risks.

What can you do?

  • If you do go out in the sun, it’s important to seek shade, particularly on hot and sunny days.
  • Limit exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is brightest and highest in the sky.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat that covers your face, ears, and neck.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing and wear sunglasses.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply often, particularly if you are in the water or perspiring.
  • Stay hydrated.
  • Ask your health care provider or pharmacist if your medications make you more sensitive to sunlight (e.g., antihistamines such as Benadryl, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Aspirin or Ibuprofen, certain antibiotics, antidepressants, antipsychotics, and some oral diabetic medications).

Don’t worry, you can still enjoy the summer months, including those wonderful sunny Pacific Northwest days. Just remember to take steps to protect your skin, your body’s largest organ!


Mary Pat O'LearyContributor Mary Pat O’Leary, RN, BSN is a senior planner at Aging and Disability Services, a division of the Seattle Human Services Department that serves countywide as the Area Agency on Aging.

This article appeared in the July 2024 issue of AgeWise King County.