As you pack your bag for the football field or the pumpkin patch, you may be thinking:
“I have a good base tan, and I can’t get a sunburn during seasons other than summer anyway, right?”
While summer may be fading faster than your tan, that’s no reason to ditch the sunscreen. The increased cloud cover and cooler weather that make us cover up and stay inside more aren’t enough to fend off the risk of sunburn.
“Excessive ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which is what causes sunburns by damaging skin cells, exists regardless of the season,” said Dr. Jake E. Turrentine, dermatologist at Augusta University Dermatology. “Sunburns are not only painful but also significantly increase your future risk of skin cancer.”
That’s why it’s important to understand two things:
- How to protect yourself from sun damage and sunburns.
- The importance of making this standard practice year round.
Here are Dr. Turrentine’s answers to the most common questions he hears from his patients:
- Can you get burned in the shade or winter time?
Yes. Sunburns are caused by UV radiation, which is an invisible type of radiation released from the sun. Most UV radiation is filtered by the ozone layer, but a significant amount of UV radiation reaches the earth’s surface, even if the weather is cloudy. UV radiation can penetrate clouds, most car windows and many types of clothing, even though these things can filter some of the UV light. UV rays can also reflect off the ground and bounce back to your body to cause burns. This is commonly seen if you’re in the shade at the beach, where UV reflects off sand or if you’re skiing and UV reflects off the snow. When you think you’re protected by shade, you may spend too much time outdoors catching the UV radiation that penetrates through umbrellas/clouds or reflects off the ground, and that can make you burn.
- Can getting a tan protect you from burning?
There is little scientific evidence that tanning will prevent future burns. In fact, some evidence has shown that people who try to get a base tan before the summer have an increased risk of sunburns. Getting a tan requires you to be exposed to UV radiation, which increases your risk of skin cancer and early aging. Therefore, trying to get a tan to protect yourself from future sun damage is not a good strategy.
- What sunscreen should I use?
- The best sunscreens protect from multiple types of UV radiation (UV-A and UV-B). The Sun Protection Factor (“SPF”) number tells you how well the sunscreen protects you from UV-B radiation, and you should choose a product with an SPF of at least 30 (preferably higher).
- Look for the words “Broad Spectrum” on the sunscreen, which means that the product also protects you adequately from UV-A radiation. Although UV-B radiation is the most important cause of sunburn, UV-A radiation causes wrinkles and early aging of the skin. Both UV-A and UV-B radiation increase your risk of skin cancer.
- When you plan on being in the water or active, it is important to get a sunscreen that is water resistant (up to 40 minutes) or very water resistant (up to 80 minutes). There is no such thing as a “waterproof” sunscreen, so you always have to re-apply sunscreen after you’ve been in water or have sweated.
- For the face (and for any area if you are acne-prone), it is important to make sure that the sunscreen is labeled “non-comedogenic,” which means that it does not cause acne.
- The most important thing is to use a sunscreen that you will actually wear on a regular basis. Many people do not like the way sunscreen feels on their skin, but most people don’t realize there are different types of sunscreens – sprays, sticks, powders, creams, gels and others. It’s important to try different ones and see what you will want to wear.
- How do you treat sunburn?
- The first and most important treatment is to get out of the sun when you feel a burning or tingling sensation on your skin after being in the sun.
- Once you’re out of the sun and realize you’re burned, you should use a moisturizer such as aloe vera to soothe sunburned skin.
- You should also drink plenty of water, and make sure that you are hydrated, because sunburned skin will draw water to your skin’s surface and cause you to become dehydrated faster than normal.
- When you shower, you should make sure that your showers are cool (not hot), and you should gently pat dry, being careful to leave some moisture on your skin. Then apply a moisturizer such as aloe vera or a thick cream/ointment to help prevent your skin from getting too dry.
- If you get any blisters, do not pop the blisters. Leave them to heal on their own, because they protect your skin from infection and allow it to heal faster.
- In some cases, it is OK to take aspirin or ibuprofen to reduce swelling and discomfort. However, be careful not to get back in the sun after taking these medications, because they can make your skin more sensitive to future sunburns.
- Most importantly, while your skin is healing, make sure to protect it from additional sun exposure while the skin heals. Wear sunscreen and clothing that covers the sunburned area (preferably tightly woven fabrics that do not let much UV light through).
- Sunburn can cause you to get skin cancer, but don’t you need sun for vitamin D?
- UV-B radiation does help your body make vitamin D, but a very small amount of sun exposure can help make all the vitamin D your body needs. Most people only need around 10-20 minutes of sun exposure per day to produce adequate amounts of vitamin D, depending on skin type, time of day, and amount of your body that is exposed.
- You can also get vitamin D from supplements instead of sun exposure, and this is highly recommended if you have a personal or family history of skin cancer. For most people, 600 international units (IU) of vitamin D per day is adequate; some people require 800 IU.
- There is no excuse for getting sunburned just to get your vitamin D. The required amount of sun for vitamin D is very low, and excessive amounts of sun exposure can cause burns, early aging and increased risk of melanoma and other types of skin cancer.
If you have a history of sunburns or significant sun exposure, you should perform self-skin exams to look for suspicious spots. You should also consider seeing a dermatologist for comprehensive skin cancer screening.