Sunshine has its benefits, but be careful not to get too much exposure

Woman planting flowers in her front yard

Ah, the summer sun. It feels good to be out in the warm sunshine after being cooped up inside, and a sunny day can lift our spirits.

But too much sun can damage our skin, affect our eyesight, and even reduce the effectiveness of our immune system, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).1

While excessive exposure to the sun can be a problem any time of year, summertime brings a heightened risk. For one thing, we tend to be outside for longer periods. We often wear less clothing, exposing more of our body. And the sun is higher in the sky, and more direct, than it is during the winter months.

According to the National Center for Environmental Health, July is UV Safety Awareness Month.2 UV stands for ultraviolet, referring to the radiation that comes from the sun and from artificial sources such as tanning beds and certain types of lighting.3

UV radiation is not all bad. It helps produce vitamin D, a vitamin essential to human health. Vitamin D helps the body absorb calcium and phosphorus from food and assists bone development. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends 5 to 15 minutes of sun exposure 2 to 3 times a week.4

The risks

Besides sunburn, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists several risks from exposure to UV radiation:1

  • Skin cancer. Each year, the EPA says, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer; less serious types are squamous cell and basal carcinoma.
  • Premature aging and other skin damage. UV-related skin disorders include actinic keratosis—raised, reddish, rough textured growths—and accelerated aging, which makes the skin become thick, wrinkled and leathery. According to the EPA, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun.
  • Cataracts and other eye damage. Cataracts are a form of eye damage in which a loss of transparency in the lens of the eye clouds vision. If left untreated, cataracts can lead to blindness. Research has shown that UV radiation increases the likelihood of certain cataracts.
  • Immune system suppression. The skin normally mounts a defense against foreign invaders such as cancers and infections. Overexposure to UV radiation can weaken the immune system, reducing the skin’s ability to protect against these invaders.5

Reducing your risk

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there are several ways you can help reduce your risk of skin damage and skin cancer:

  • Shade. Be sure you have access to an umbrella, tree or other structure that provides shade if you’re going to be outside on a sunny day.
  • Clothing. Long sleeve shirts and long pants offer more protection than short sleeves and short pants. Some clothing lists a certified UV protection factor.
  • Hat. A hat with a brim all the way around provides some protection.
  • Sunglasses. Those that block both UVA and UVB rays may offer the best protection.
  • Sunscreen. The CDC recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher. SPF stands for sun protection factor.6

Talk to your doctor if you notice any unusual growths on your skin or experience sudden problems with your vision.

Sources:

  1. “Health Effects of UV Radiation,” U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, last accessed June 8, 2020, https://www.epa.gov/sunsafety/health-effects-uv-radiation, opens new window.
  2. NCEH/ATSDR Calendar, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health, last accessed June 8, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/information/calendar.htm, opens new window
  3. “UV Radiation,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Environmental Health, last accessed June 8, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/uv-radiation-safety/index.html, opens new window
  4. “UV Radiation.”
  5. “Health Effects of UV Radiation.”
  6. “Sun Safety,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, last accessed June 8, 2020, https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/basic_info/sun-safety.htm, opens new window