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Stay Safe in the Sun

Updated: May 17

By Oran AViv

Summer is near. That means vacation time and time to be outdoors. Here are some tips to protect you and your family from sun damage. Sun rays may not only harm our skin but may also compromise our immune system to keep it from protecting us.

Be Kind to Your Immune System The damage caused by the sun's rays, apart from discoloration, loss of elasticity, wrinkles and skin cancer, is also one more front of attack on our body that forces our immune system to work harder.

In our modern world, our bodies are constantly under attack from pollutants in our air, food and water which all stress our immune system – which is already working round-the-clock to keep us healthy by ridding us of harmful germs and malignant cells. Any way we can give our immune system a break – will help it perform better.

Our immune system protects us with an inflammatory response against infections and injuries. However, when our immune system is out of sync, it can malfunction and start sending out inflammatory cells that attack our own healthy cells. Some examples:

  • If the immune system attacks our joints, it can cause arthritis.

  • If the immune system attacks the digestive system, it can cause Colitis or Crohn’s

  • If the immune system attacks brain cells, it can lead to Alzheimer’s or other types of dementia.

So – even if you are not worried about your skin, do worry about your important immune system. Protect yourself from the sun so your immune system doesn't have to deal with malignant skin cells from sun exposure. Help your immune system work well.

The Easiest Sun Protection

I make a yearly appointment to the skin doctor every year and am always pleased when the doctor says I don’t have the skin of a redhead. He means that my skin is not full or freckles or changes in pigmentation.

In my early 20’s I was a member of a desert hiking club. I was very lucky that during one hike, a group member explained to me that the sun causes freckles and other skin pigmentation.

At the time, I had already developed some freckles on my face and shoulders. I find this amazing that no doctor nor school nurse ever explained to me the connection between skin lesions and the sun. Luckily once I learned about the sun and skin pigmentation, I began protecting myself from the sun, both on hikes and anytime I was outside. I also protected my kids from the sun from an early age.

The best protection of course is to stay out of the midday sun!

If you do need to be outside, try to stay in the shade and keep the time you are exposed to the sun at a minimum. Shield yourself by wearing long sleeves, long pants, and a wide brimmed hat.

Also, beware of cloudy, summer days. Our family was once camping at a resort that had a pool. Since it was overcast, I was lax about my kids being outside. The all got slightly sunburned, the only time they did while they were still under my supervision. I felt I had failed as a mother! 😱

The fact is that even on overcast days most of those harmful rays pass through the clouds, especially if they are white clouds.

The Good and Bad Sides of Sunscreens

When you cannot avoid being outside, than you might want to also apply a sun screen that protects you, yet isn’t made of dangerous chemicals that can actually harm you. How do you know which sunscreens are effective and which ones are safe?

In the sun we need protection from both UVA and UVB rays which can damagea our skin, cause skin cancer and surpress our immune system. This means we need a wide protection from the smallest to to the larger wavelengths of light from the sun.

These screening agents all block both UVA and UVB rays, but not all of them are safe:

  • Benzophenone

  • Oxybenzone

  • Avobenzone

  • Zinc Oxide

  • Titanium dioxide

The last 3 screening agents are considered safe to use by the FDA, so you might want to learn to read the ingredients in your sunscreen, just like you read ingredients in the food products you buy. You want to make sure your sunscreen both protects you and does not harm you. These are the 3 ingredients that block UVA and UVB rays, but are considered safe by the FDA:

  • Avobenzone

  • Zinc Oxide

  • Titanium dioxide (Not as a powder or spray)

It is still best to stay out of the sun rather than douse yourself with chemicals every day. I would also suggest changing your sunscreen so that you use different screening agents and not the same chemicals everyday.

You can find much information on the internet about sunscreen protection and many articles have shown that you cannot always trust the SPF that is listed on the sunscreen – especially those sold in the US!

The EWG, the same wonderful nonprofit that gives us the yearly dirty dozen list of produce with high pesticides that you may have read about in my blog Should We Eat Organic also has many articles about sunscreen.

Treating Sun Burns

If, despite protection, you do get sunburned, treat it like any other burn by cooling the area and disinfecting it.

When you burn yourself, it is your cells that are burning in the affected area. Just like we sadly see how forest fires spread from tree to tree, the burning cells spread to adjacent cells. First aid treatment is to stop the spread of the burn.

This is the reason why it is so important to stop a burn by cooling it for at least 20 minutes. When my son was 4 years old he accidently spilled boiling water on himself. I grabbed him and threw him in the shower with his clothes on. He was a bit surprised (as were the people who had hosted us) but he did not have any sign of a burn on his body. To treat a sunburn, Moshe Zalle, paramedic extraordinaire taught us in his 1st Aid course to treat a sunburn in a similar way. He suggests spending 20 -30 minutes in a bath with tepid water and a small amount of soap. The lukewarm water will stop the sunburn from spreading and the soap will disinfect. Moshe recommends lukewarm rather than cold water because cold water can be shocking to the burning skin.

Bigger Is Not Always Better

How much more protection do you think you are getting by using a higher SPF sunscreen? You would think that if you go from a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 to an SPF of 100 you would be able to stay out in the sun much longer, right?

Well, first the SPF rating is for the UVB rays only. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 already protects you against 97% of the UVB rays! Anything greater that 50 SPF gives only a bit more protection!

From the University of Texas Cancer Center:

SPF 15 sunscreen blocks 93% of UVB radiation,

SPF 30 blocks 97%.

After that, the difference in protection is small.

SPF 50 blocks 98%, and

SPF 100 stops 99%

of UVB rays from reaching your skin.

If you look for a sunscreen today, it’s almost impossible to find one with a SPF that is lower than 50. Perhaps this is because the companies make more on these higher priced sunscreens.. I prefer buying a lower SPF and reapplying more often. This is why:

👉🏽 You are not getting more protection for your money. The higher SPF sunscreens are more expensive. To me it makes more sense to buy a sunscreen with a lower SPF and reapply more often.

👉🏽 People tend to get more sun damage while using a higher SPF sunscreen because they think they are more protected.

👉🏽 High SPF products use more chemicals which may cause other health risks.

When I am out in the sun, I use my phone or watch timer to remind myself to reapply the sunscreen. I even did this while hiking during a New Zealand summer where there is high UV radiation due to the hole in the ozone. This worked for me. I believe it’s a safer option than buying the high SPF sunscreens.

Enjoy the Early or Late Sun

Go out and enjoy the sun during the early morning hours or before evening. Personally I think it’s important to get some exposure to the sun during the safe hours to protect our skin. When I used to totally cover myself from the sun at all times of the day, I would burn so easily if I was exposed to the sun. Now I slowly let my skin get used to the sun in the early morning hours when I run, and I don’t burn. Of course I stay out of the sun as much as I can, but if I’m caught in the sun without protection, I don’t burn like I used to.

Skin cancer is often found on the areas that are over exposed to the sun – the face, ears, neck and back. However, skin cancer is often found in hidden places that do not get much sun.

Most women I know who were diagnosed with skin cancer discovered in on their legs – an area that does not normally get sun. I wonder if when women begin wearing shorts in the summer after not having their legs exposed during the other months of the year, the skin is not protected and may be more susceptible to the UV rays.

The other “hidden” areas that do not normally get much sun but may be areas where skin cancer can develop are the palms of the hands and soles of the feet. As a reflexology therapist I always suggest to clients to get checked if I see a skin lesions in these areas. Other areas you should check are nails, scalp and buttocks. AARP posted an article about 4 warning signs of melanoma that are easy to miss . It's one of the few articles about melanoma that explains how to recognize it without grotesques photos. I highly recommend that everyone see their dermatologist once a year for a check-up for early detection of skin cancer. Your dermatologist should check you from from your scalp to your toes. Please remember that if you protect yourself well from the sun, you may find yourself deficient in vitamin D. To learn more read my previous blog, The Importance of Vitamin D.

Be safe this summer by keeping yourself protected

  • Stay out of the sun as much as you can

  • Wear protective clothing

  • Use a sunscreen that safely provides UVA and UVB protection

  • Reapply a lower SPF sunscreen rather than use a higher spf

  • Treat sunburns immediately

  • Get a yearly check for early detection of skin cancer

Have a safe summer - out of the sun!


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