July is the perfect month to talk about sun and UV safety. The sun is bright and the temperatures hot, and many people spend a lot more time outside during the summer than at other times of the year. If you aren’t prepared properly for sun safety, you can cause damage to your skin and your eyes, and you can also increase your likelihood of developing cancer due to UV exposure. Sun damage is cumulative, so the more you are exposed to UV rays over the course of a lifetime, the higher your risk as you age of developing some form of skin cancer or illness.
What is UV and How Does it Affect Me?
UV radiation comes from the sun, though you can also be exposed in tanning beds. The most harmful UV rays have enough energy to ionize an atom or molecule, creating a type of ionizing radiation. This is what damages the cells in our bodies and can lead to cancer. This kind of radiation doesn’t have the power to penetrate beyond the skin, which is why it mainly affects the skin and eyesight.
There are three types of UV rays: UVA, UVB, and UVC. UVA rays are the weakest and aren’t directly linked to most skin cancers, but they do play a role in causing long-term sun damage, which leads to wrinkles and liver spots. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns and are the main contributor to most skin cancers. The last category is UVC, which many people have not even heard of because these rays are blocked by our atmosphere and do not reach the ground. However, UVC rays can come from some manmade sources, such as mercury lamps, welding torches, and UV sanitizing bulbs.
How do UV Rays Affect the Eyes?
When considering sun safety, the first topic of discussion is almost always about protecting the skin. But of equal importance is protecting your eyes. UV rays can contribute to eye problems just as they contribute to skin issues. Some of the effects of UV rays on the eyes are an inflamed or burned cornea, formation of cataracts, and the growth of tissue on the surface of the eye, called pterygium.
How do I Protect Myself?
There are some easy measures you can take that will protect your skin and eyes if you’re going to be outside. For your eyes, it can be as simple as wearing a pair of sunglasses, especially glasses that are labeled as able to filter UV rays. If you get headaches from sun glare or too much time in the sun, you may also notice a decrease in headaches because the sunglasses are reducing or removing the harshest effects of sunlight.
For your skin, always wear sunscreen. You can also:
- Sit in the shade whenever possible, such as under a tree or umbrella.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim all the way around to cover your face and neck.
- Depending on the temperature, wear clothing that covers your arms, legs, and neck.
- Don’t neglect your feet and hands – sandals worn without sunscreen can leave you with a sunburn on your feet. Your hands are often as equally exposed as your face. You can wear thin gloves to protect from the sun.
- When at the pool, wear covers that are designed for swimming and block UV rays.
If you suspect you may be at high risk of developing skin cancer, or if you see something suspicious on your skin, talk to a qualified dermatologist. You can also request a skin assessment from a dermatologist, who may utilize a visual inspection for any moles or blemishes as well as blood tests or skin imaging to assess deep sun damage.
American Cancer Society: https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cancer-causes/radiation-exposure/uv-radiation.html
National Cancer Institute: www.cancer.gov
Skin Cancer Foundation: www.skincancer.org