Do you know how to protect your skin from the summer sun?

July 12, 2021 Swedish Health Team

Key takeaways:

  • Exposure to the sun’s harmful rays can damage your skin and cause skin cancer, including melanoma.
  • Melanoma accounts for only about 1% of skin cancers but is more dangerous than others since it is more likely to spread.
  • Swedish physician, Dr. Kelly Paulson provides advice for lowering your risk of sun damage and skin cancer, including melanoma.

[4 MIN READ]

Summer is in full swing, complete with hot days, pool parties and family vacations. Most of us love soaking up the sunshine during these warm-weather months. But if you are like many people, you don’t always remember to protect your skin from the sun’s damaging rays. Over time, this can increase your risk of skin cancer, including melanoma.

While less common than other types of skin cancer, melanoma is more dangerous because it is more likely to spread to other organs if it is not treated early. 

Melanoma is a serious form of skin cancer that begins in cells known as melanocytes (which produce melanin to give skin its pigmentation). While less common than other types of skin cancer, melanoma is more dangerous because it is more likely to spread to other organs if it is not treated early. Sun damage accounts for about 90% of all skin cancers, including melanoma. Family genetics may play a role, but only for a small number of people.

“Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun increases your risk of getting melanoma, especially if you had sunburns during childhood,” says Kelly Paulson, M.D., an expert in melanoma and a medical oncologist with Swedish Cancer Institute. “The UV light hits the melanocytes and damages them. As a result, the cells forget their genetic programming and start to grow out of control and spread.”

The sun isn’t the only source of UV radiation. “Tanning beds are more dangerous than the sun because they use more UV radiation and the UVA rays penetrate the skin deeper,” says Dr. Paulson.

The importance of sunscreen

Everyone should wear sunscreen year-round, even if it’s cloudy and cold outside. But sunscreen is vital in the summer months since that’s when UV rays are strongest and also when your skin is the most exposed.

Two different types of sunscreen are manufactured in the United States, and both provide good protection. These types include:

  • Mineral-based. These contain a metal such as zinc or titanium that reflects the sun’s light away from your skin.
  • Organic (chemical) based. These contain organic compounds that cause a chemical reaction when exposed to the sun. The reaction transforms UV rays into heat, which is released from the skin. 

These sunscreens protect all skin tones, Dr. Paulson says. “Melanoma is most common in non-Hispanic whites,” she explains. “But even people with very dark skin can get melanoma. Since skin with more pigmentation makes melanoma harder to spot, they can often have a later diagnosis and worse outcomes.”

The right sunscreen for you

The best sunscreen for you is the one you will use. If you don’t like applying sunscreen with your hands, buy one with a spray applicator. If it just doesn’t feel like summer without a coconut-scented sunscreen, by all means, stock up.

Select a sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum,” which protects against the two types of ultraviolet rays that can damage skin (ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B).

Whatever brand or application method you choose, be sure the sunscreen has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Dr. Paulson says that sunscreens with a higher SPF work too—but there’s no evidence they provide more protection than SPF 30. Also, be sure to select a sunscreen labeled “broad-spectrum,” which protects against the two types of ultraviolet rays that can damage skin (ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B).

Sunscreen application tips

Dr. Paulson notes that applying sunscreen isn’t necessarily a one-and-done operation. She encourages people to:

  • Apply sunscreen before going outside—about two tablespoons should be enough for your entire body
  • Reapply every two hours if you are sweating or swimming.
  • Get good coverage across all exposed areas of your body. Find a sunscreen buddy who can make sure your back and scalp are covered.
  • Keep sunscreen handy—at home, in the car, in your pool bag, etc.

If you expect to spend time in the water or sweat excessively, use a sport or water-resistant sunscreen (you’ll still need to reapply it every two hours to ensure good coverage).

Avoid peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m., when possible—that’s when the sun is highest and can do the most damage to your skin.

Dress for success

Clothing can protect you from the sun’s harmful rays as well. When dressing for the outdoors, choose clothing with:

  • Vivid colors. These absorb more UV light than light-colored clothing, meaning that the UV rays are less likely to reach your skin.
  • Dense fabric. A tighter knit blocks the rays from getting through.
  • Synthetic material, such as polyester and nylon. These are more protective than cotton or rayon.

Dr. Paulson recommends sun-protecting clothing, which blocks ultraviolet light and protects against melanoma and other skin cancers. “There are so many varieties now—long-sleeve shirts, shorts and pants, neck gaiters, even gloves,” she says. “I like rash guard swim shirts, which can protect your skin from the sun in places where sunscreen is likely to wash off.”

Protect your head, neck and eyes

Don’t forget to top off your outfit with something that protects your head. But remember, not all hats are created equal. For example, baseball caps cover your head and shield your face, but leave your ears and neck exposed. Consider a broad-brimmed hat, which will protect your skin from the neck up. Melanoma can develop in the eyes, too, so be sure to wear sunglasses with UV protection.

The more sunburns a person gets at a young age, the higher their risk for melanoma. 

Remember to protect your children, too

The more sunburns a person gets at a young age, the higher their risk for melanoma. That’s why it’s so important for parents to protect their young children from the sun and educate them about skin cancer prevention.

  • Keep babies younger than 6 months out of direct sunlight.
  • Older infants and children should wear brimmed hats, UV protection sunglasses and tightly woven clothing while in the sun.
  • Discourage children from tanning.
  • Set a good example by protecting your own skin from the sun!
  • Help kids apply sunscreen, even if they insist they can do it on their own.

For more ways to protect your kids’ skin from the sun, check out this advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

How to spot melanoma

An annual check-up by a dermatologist can help detect any signs of skin cancer in the early stages. It’s important to perform regular self-exams, too. When melanoma is detected early, the estimated survival rate is 99%.

When melanoma is detected early, the estimated survival rate is 99%.

Learn how to spot melanoma.

Encouraging signs

In addition to caring for patients with skin cancer, Dr. Paulson conducts melanoma research. In 2019, she co-authored a research study showing that from 2006 to 2015 in the United States, melanoma incidence decreased overall among people ages 10 to 29.

“Young people seem to be getting the message about protecting their skin from the sun,” she says. “Unfortunately, melanoma rates are rising in older adults. We need to continue to spread the word about sun protection so that people of all ages can avoid skin cancer.”

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Find a doctor

If you have any concerning skin tags, moles or dark spots, it’s important to see a dermatologist or a primary care doctor. Whether you require an in-person visit or want to consult with a doctor virtually, you have options. Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction and follow up as needed. If you need to find a doctor, you can use our provider directory.

Related resources

3 surprising ways to get sunburned

10 minor skin issues that may mean serious problems

Protect against melanoma in kids

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.

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