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Gearing Up For Sunburn Season
Putting On Sunscreen Is Just The Minimum

June 4th, 2004

By Ken McGrath : eCureMe Contributor
June 3th, 2004 : Physician Reviewed

When does summer begin? Is it when the kids get out of school? Is it when the beaches open? Is it when you can finally put away the raincoat you took out of the closet in March? Chances are no two people would come to the same conclusion, but summer does mean one thing to everyone: sun. Whether you bathe in it, or prefer the shade, the sun’s rays are flooding across most of the country. And while you probably know that it’s wise to bring a bottle of sunscreen to the beach, there’s a lot more you need to do protect yourself from sunburn.

Gearing Up For Sunburn Season

Skin Reaction

It’s not really the visible sunlight you bask in that causes you to burn. It’s the invisible, ultraviolet radiation (UV) that comes along with it. The reaction your skin has to the UV rays depends on how strong they are, how long you’re exposed to them and what you do to protect yourself.

The symptoms of a bad sunburn are all too familiar for most: swollen, reddened skin that feels like it’s on fire followed by a long process of dead skin flaking off the body. In extreme cases - such as when someone has fallen asleep in direct sunlight - the problems of sunburn can be more than skin deep. In these cases confusion, fever, extreme thirst, light sensitivity and chills all compound the burn. Such cases require immediate medical attention.

Unfortunately, the short-term consequences of absorbing too many UV rays are the least serious ones. If exposure is prolonged, your skin will start to age prematurely by wrinkling, becoming more rigid, rough and dry in patches and developing "age spots" or "liver spots". Various types of skin cancer are also strongly linked to excessive exposure. Sunburns sustained early in life, though they eventually heal, can raise the risk of cancer years later. When it comes down to it, getting a tan isn’t any better than getting burned. Both involve overexposure to UV; only in people who tan, the UV rays stimulate certain cells in the skin to produce more of the pigment melanin.


You probably know the basic preventative measures you need to take in order to protect yourself in the sun: keep the sun block handy, the higher the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) the better and try to cover up when you’re lounging on the beach. But if that’s all you know, you may not have the protection you need.

The following tips can help you and your family stay safe:
  • Ultraviolet rays are most intense during the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead or near its highpoint in the sky. Typically, this means that you’re most likely to be overexposed from about 10 in the morning to 4 in the afternoon. If you want to hang around outdoors it’s best to do so during the morning or evening.

  • Shielding your chest and arms from UV rays by wearing a shirt is a good idea. However, if you get the shirt wet, UV rays will go right through it. Darker colored shirts offer better protection than white ones. Tightly woven fabrics are more effective at blocking the sun than loose ones and though it’s comfortable, cotton isn’t as protective as synthetic fabrics. Hats, especially those with wider brims, can provide your face and head a measure of protection.

  • If you think you won’t get that much sun because you’re just planning on swimming, not sunbathing, think again. UV rays can penetrate water and have the same impact as if you were on dry land. Spending time in the water can even compound the effect of the sun, as the reflection off the surface of the pool, lake or ocean can also swamp your skin. Apply waterproof sun block before you go for a dip. Check the label to see what level of protection it offers. Many waterproof sunscreens will wash away if you’re in the water for more than an hour so reapplying the lotion may be necessary.

  • Your sun block will work best if you put it on 20 to 30 minutes before you head outside.

  • You might only think of preparing for the sun if you’re planning on going to the beach. But as long as you’re outside - to walk, to garden, or to barbeque - you’re just as exposed as if you were sunbathing.

  • Too many UV rays can damage your eyes as well as your skin. Excessive exposure to sunlight has been shown to contribute to cataracts and growths on the surface of the eye, some cancerous. Whenever you put on sun block, make sure you’re wearing sunglasses as well. Look for shades that claim to block 99% or 100% of UV rays. Some labels advertise "UV absorption of up to 400nm": this is the same as 100% UV blocking.
As a rule of thumb, it’s always better to make sure you and yours have more UV protection than less. Chances are most people wouldn’t want to avoid the sun this summer, even if they could; when you plan thoroughly, sun safety and sun fun can go hand in hand.

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