Sun Safety while at the Beach
Posted by: Karen Fowler
America's beaches are major attractions to which, collectively, we make approximately 2 billion visits annually, according to the EPA. From sunbathing and tanning, to surfing, volleyball games, and amusement parks, there are many reasons why people come to the beach. There are, however, a variety of dangers to look out for, not the least of which is the threat of sunburn. Sunburn is a condition that occurs when the body has been exposed to an excessive amount of ultraviolet (UV) radiation, typically correlating to sun exposure. It is marked by a number of symptoms, including reddening and swelling of the skin, blisters, pain, and peeling. Excessive exposure to the sun's UV radiation can also cause the skin to age faster and is the most common cause of melanoma, a form of skin cancer.
Facts About Sun Exposure
Exposure to the sun is necessary for good health; for example, it causes the body to generate vitamin D, which helps the body use calcium to make its bones stronger. It's important to strike a balance to achieve the benefits of sun exposure and the dangers of over exposure. There are three types of harmful UV radiation; UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA radiation reaches the Earth's surface in the highest concentrations, but is the least dangerous. UVB is more hazardous, and the damage it does is reinforced by UVA radiation. UVC is the most hazardous, but because the Earth's atmosphere blocks it from reaching the surface it does not affect the skin. UV radiation is highest and most harmful at high altitudes and at the equator, thus the risk of sunburn is highest in those areas. This is not to say that one cannot enjoy the sun in those areas, but rather sun exposure should be closely monitored and precautions taken.
Melanin: The Body's First Line of Defense
Melanin is the body's main method of protection against UV radiation. As a photoprotective substance, melanin is also responsible for the difference in people's skin color. The more melanin a person has, the darker their complexion, and the more protection they have against UV radiation. It is not a perfect defense, however, which means that even people with darker complexions can suffer from sunburn, although not as easily. Melanoma, a potential result of UV radiation exposure, is a form of skin cancer that threatens people of all complexions.
Reduce Time in the Sun
The hours during which maximum UV radiation exposure occurs is are 10:00am to 4:00pm. During this time, sunburn can occur within half an hour. It is important to stay in the shade as much as possible during this period. Those who cannot find shade at this time should use sunscreen and wear protective clothing. It is also necessary to keep track of the local daily UV Index forecasts. The higher the index, the less time one should spend directly exposed to the sun. When the index is high, typically during the summer, sunburn can occur within fifteen minutes.
Dress with Care
One's choice of clothing is important, when it comes to protection against excessive UV exposure. Shirts with long sleeves protect the body and arms from sunburn, as do longer pants, as opposed to tank tops, shorts and t-shirts. A hat is also essential for protecting the neck, head and face. When coming out of the water, switching to dry clothes is beneficial because wet clothes offer less UV protection. Transparent or see-through clothing also offers a reduced defense against sunburn. Whenever dressing in shorts, tank tops or other clothing that does not provide full coverage, it is advisable to cover unprotected areas with some form of sunscreen.
Be Serious about Sunscreen
Sunblock, or sunscreen protection, is another necessity when prolonged exposure to the sun is to be expected and comes in the form of creams, lotions, gels, or sprays. Regardless of the form, it is intended for direct application to the skin; however, not all sunblock protection is equal, as some types only filter out either UVA or UVB radiation, but not both. In addition, it is necessary to use sunscreen products that have a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15, 30 may be more beneficial for some. The most ideal form of sunscreen protection uses zinc oxide or titanium oxide, and is rated to block both UVA and UVB rays, and has a SPF of 30.
Tips for Applying Sunscreen
In general, sunscreen should be applied to any part of the body that is directly exposed to the sun. This includes the face, neck, hands, arms, feet, torso, and back. Because the body sweats, sunblock protection can wear off. For this reason, people should reapply the protection every 90 minutes or right after going for a swim. The thicker the layer of sunscreen, the more effective it will be.
Protect the Eyes
Along with harming the skin, the sun's UV rays can also cause damage to the eyes. UV radiation exposure can result in cataracts, macular degeneration, or even cancer of the eyes. To protect the eyes, it is necessary to wear protective sunglasses. Only sunglasses that are rated to block 100% of UV radiation through broad-spectrum protection are considered adequate protection.
Double Check Medications
Certain medications may increase the risk of sunburn or sun-related damage to the skin. In addition, it is possible for allergic reactions to occur with some types of sunscreen. To prevent this from happening, one should consult their doctor for information on potential reactions between their medication and their sunscreen. Examples of medication that react harmfully with exposure to the sun include some chemotherapy medicine, coal tar derivatives designed for treating psoriasis, oral contraceptives, as well as some antibiotics, such as doxycycline. People with health conditions, such as lupus or porphyria, should also avoid direct exposure to the sun.
If Sunburn Occurs
In the event that excessive exposure to the sun occurs, the risk of sunburn is more likely to become a reality. Sunburns are actually first or second degree burns, and the symptoms may take hours to manifest and weeks to abate. Hydrocortisone cream is a form of topical steroid that can alleviate the pain that is associated with sunburns. Products made of aloe vera offer relief in the form of not only healing, but also a counteracting cooling sensation. Shaving cream is another solution for pain relief. Applying honey to burned areas can promote cell growth and healing, as well as kill bacteria and reduce the chance of infection. Frequent cool showers will help to reduce the amount of skin dryness that comes as a result of sunburn. Moisturizers that do not contain alcohol are another necessary remedy.
- Oklahoma State University: UV Index
- National Weather Service: UV Index
- Ohio State University: Sun Safety
- Vanderbilt University: How Helpful is Sunscreen?
- University of Rochester: Sun Safety
- EPA: Action Steps for Sun Safety
- Palomar College: Skin Color Adaptation
- Santa Monica College: Skin Color and Tanning
- National Institutes of Health: The Protective Role of Melanin Against UV Damage in Human Skin
- Stony Brook Medicine: Sunburn Treatment and Prevention
- University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute: Sun Safety
- UC Berkeley: Sun Safety
- New York University: Sun Protection From Your Clothes?
- University of California, San Francisco: Sunblock
- Washington University in St. Louis: Sunscreen - Don't Leave Home Without It
- Rochester University: Sunscreens
- Michigan State University: Sun Protection
- University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center: Health Watch -- Fun in the Sun: Protect Your Eyes
- New York Eye and Ear Infirmary: Protecting Your Eyes From The Summer Sun
- University of Wisconsin: Sunburn Prevention and Treatment
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Photodermatitis
- Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh: Sunburn
- Texas A&M: Treating Sunburn (PDF)
- University of Florida: Soothing Sunburn
- NIMA - Overexposed: NIMA'S Sunburn Relief Guide