Shedding Light on UV Safety
It’s hard to beat a gorgeous summer day filled with sunshine, a soft breeze and perhaps some family fun at the beach. Like most things in life, though, it comes with both benefits and risks.
July is Ultraviolet Safety Month and a good time to get informed about the dangers and how to protect yourself and your loved ones all year-round.
Prolonged exposure to ultraviolet radiation can cause sunburn, premature aging, and even lead to significant health issues, including skin cancer, eye cancer and cataracts. So, let’s get an understanding of UV radiation and the steps we can take to enjoy summer while keeping our families safe.
What Is UV Radiation?
Ultraviolet rays are an invisible type of radiation. They are emitted by the sun and even artificial sources.
In fact, it doesn’t have to be a sunny, warm day to be exposed to UV radiation. UV rays reflect off water, concrete, sand and snow, and are present even on cloudy days.
There are three types of UV radiation, determined by wavelength:
- UVC: Completely absorbed in the atmosphere and not a threat.
- UVB: Mostly absorbed by the ozone layer, but some does reach us.
- UVA: Nearly all the UV radiation we receive on Earth. It is weaker than UVB but penetrates deeper into the skin and exposure is constant year-round.
The sun is our number 1 source of UV, but not the only one.
Other artificial sources include:
- Tanning beds
- Mercury vapor lighting (often found in stadiums and school gyms)
- Some halogen, fluorescent and incandescent lights
- Some types of lasers
Benefits of UVA
Before you consider throwing out all your light bulbs, know that there are some benefits to limited UVA exposure.
For example, it’s a source of vitamin D, which helps our bodies absorb calcium and phosphorous from the food we eat and helps with bone development.
The American Academy of Ophthalmology (AAO) notes that a little natural light every day helps us sleep better by helping regulate our natural wake-sleep cycles. In addition, spending time outdoors during the day helps prevent nearsightedness in kids.
And some forms of artificial UVA, as well as UVB, are used for phototherapy treatment of certain diseases, like psoriasis, eczema and lupus.
Dangers of UVA
Sunburn is a short-term risk of too much UVA exposure, of course, but serious long-term effects build over time. Every sunburn over a lifetime combines to prematurely age the skin, causing leathery skin, liver spots, wrinkles, and solar elastosis or yellowing and hardening of the skin.
Skin cancer is a serious risk from overexposure, too, and it is the most common cancer in the U.S. UVA exposure can cause:
- Basal cell cancer
- Squamous cell cancer
- Melanoma, the deadliest of skin cancers
Typically, UVA-related skin cancer forms on the head, face, neck, hands and arms because those body parts are the most exposed.
Anyone can get skin cancer, but it is more common in people who:
- Spend a lot of time in the sun or have been sunburned
- Have light-colored skin, hair and eyes
- Have a family member with skin cancer
- Are over age 50
Too much exposure to UVA light also increases the risk of eye diseases over time. These include cataracts, eye cancers, growths on the eye that can impede vision and photokeratitis, commonly called snow blindness. It can develop from exposure to UVA reflections off snow, ice, sand or water.
Note that some medications and cosmetics may increase sensitivity to UVA, too.
Steps for Protecting You and Your Family
So how do you know how much danger you’re in? In the United States, UVA rays tend to be strongest from 10 am to 4 pm daylight saving time. You also can check the UV Index daily for levels in your area. If three or higher, take steps to protect your skin and eyes.
UVA Safety Tips
Shade: Reduce your risk by staying in the shade, especially during peak UV hours. Protect your skin with sunscreen and wear protective clothing.
Clothing: When possible, wear long-sleeve shirts and long pants and skirts. Wear a T-shirt or beach cover-up over a swimsuit. Tightly woven fabrics in dark colors may offer more protection, but they also may not be practical on a hot day. Consider clothing certified under international standards as UV-protective.
Hat: Wear a hat with a brim all the way around to protect your face, ears and the back of your neck. Tightly woven canvas is better than straw. If you wear a baseball cap, stay in the shade or use sunscreen on your ears and neck.
Sunglasses: People of all ages should protect their eyes and the tender skin around them with sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays. Most sunglasses sold in the U.S. meet that standard. Wraparound sunglasses block the most total rays. For help choosing a pair, AAO has tips for recommended types of sunglasses.
Sunscreen: Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB, with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply generously and reapply every two hours and after swimming, sweating or toweling off.
Speaking of sunscreen, did you know it has a shelf life of only three years? In addition, exposure to high temperatures will shorten its lifespan. Pay attention to expiration dates and replace any sunscreen left in a hot car.
Also keep in mind that sunscreen is intended to be used in combination with other safety measures. It’s not enough alone.
UV exposure of some kind is unavoidable. People work outside, athletes train and compete outside, children and families play outside. So, doctors recommend that patients check their skin at least once a month for potential signs of skin cancer. Use a full-length mirror and a handheld mirror to get a good look all around.
If you find any of the following, it’s worth mentioning to your doctor:
- A new or changing growth, spot, lump or bump on the skin
- A sore that bleeds or doesn’t heal
- A rough or dry red area on your skin that may crust or bleed
- New itchiness, soreness or pain
- A rough bump
- A mole or other spot that’s new or changing in size, shape or color
For more tips on how to do a skin self-exam, the American Cancer Society offers step-by-step instructions.