Toller Wilson: Enjoy the summer sun, but do it safely

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Many of us welcome the arrival of summer by soaking up as much sun and fresh air as we possibly can before another New England winter rolls in. While all medical providers encourage our patients to be active outdoors, there are some important safety considerations to keep in mind when you are exposed to the sun.

Sunlight consists of two types of ultra violet rays - UVA and UVB rays. Both can damage the skin and cause skin cancer with prolonged or cumulative exposure. UVA (think "A" for "Aging") rays are responsible for freckles, wrinkles and age spots and UVB (think "B" for "Burning") rays are the primary cause of sunburns. UVA rays can pass through window glass, so you should wear sunscreen even if you are in the car or a room with natural light.

The American Academy of Dermatology estimates that almost 10,000 people in this country are diagnosed with skin cancer each day. Your risk of developing skin cancer is increased if you have spent many years out in the sun without protection and have experienced multiple sunburns. However, it's never too late to develop safe and healthy sun habits. Here are some handy tips:

- Look for sunscreen labels that feature the term "Broad Spectrum Protection" - this protects you from both UVA and UVB rays.

- Sunscreen with a minimum of 30 SPF should be applied EVERY time you go outside and should be re-applied every 2 hours. Even on cloudy days, up to 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can penetrate our skin.

- Everybody, regardless of their complexion, should wear sunscreen. Everyone is susceptible to skin cancer without good sun protection.

- A good rule of thumb is to use about a shot glass worth (1 oz.) of sunscreen each time you apply it. Apply your first coat 15 minutes before going outside, and re-apply, head to toe, every two hours thereafter - don't forget the tops of your ears and the back of your neck, and use a lip balm with at least 30 SPF.

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- Sunscreen is safe to apply to babies over the age of 6 months. Up until that age you should be using protective clothing, umbrellas, shade tents, hats and other means to keep your baby out of direct sunlight.

- Light colored clothing is the most effective in reflecting sunlight away from your skin. Cover up whenever you can, particularly between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are at their strongest.

Some common questions we get about the sun, sun protection and skin cancer are:

- What about the safety of tanning beds? UV rays are UV rays, whether they come from the sun or an artificial light source. Each type of UV ray does damage to your skin, and both can increase your chances of developing skin cancer. There is no safe way to tan.

- What if, in spite of my best efforts, I get a blistering sunburn? First, don't pop the blisters! They are there to protect the burned area from bacteria and infection, so wash the area gently, pat dry carefully and moisturize or apply a hydrocortisone cream. Sunburns pull moisture from the skin, so drink plenty of fluids to stay hydrated and let the blisters resolve on their own. And remember not to expose your newly damaged skin to the sun while you heal.

- Does sunscreen ever expire? The FDA requires that sunscreens maintain their strength for at least three years from time of manufacture. But if you're correctly following the recommended guidelines of applying an ounce of sunscreen every time you go outside, and re-applying every 2 hours, even the largest bottle of sunscreen won't last that long! All sunscreens carry expiration dates, so make sure to check those and discard any that have expired.

Now that you know how to protect yourself, stock up on sunscreen, slather it on generously and get out and enjoy your summer in the garden, at the lake, hiking, biking, or spending time in our beautiful wilderness areas.

Toller Wilson, DO is a primary care physician at Brattleboro Internal Medicine, a member of BMH Medical Group.


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