Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Sun Exposure: Precautions and Protection


A golden, bronze tan is often considered a status symbol. Perhaps this supports the idea that people who have time to lie in the sun long enough to develop a deep tan, or who can travel to warm climates during winter, have more money or leisure time than “common folk.” Nevertheless, the goal of many is a deep tan early in spring or to return from vacation with that hearty, healthy glow. Whether a tan suggests status or not, careless exposure to the sun can be harmful. Ultraviolet rays from the sun will damage skin but can also create vision problems, allergic reactions, depressed immune systems, and skin concerns.

Tanning and burning are caused by ultraviolet rays from the sun. These rays cannot be seen or felt, but penetrate the skin and stimulate cells containing a brownish pigment called melanin. Melanin protects the skin by absorbing and scattering ultraviolet rays. People with dark skins have high amounts of melanin, have greater natural protection from ultraviolet rays, and tan more easily. Blondes, redheads, and people with fair skins have less melanin and, therefore, burn more quickly.

As melanin is stimulated by ultraviolet rays, it rises to the skin’s surface as a tan and provides protection against future sun exposure. Individuals with dark skins such as olive, brown, or black are not immune to burning and skin damage caused by careless exposure to the sun.

Two types of ultraviolet rays (UV) from the sun exist: UVA and UVB. UVB cause burning of the skin or the red associated with sunburn, skin cancer, and premature aging of skin. UVA rays stimulate tanning but are also linked to other problems such as impaired vision, skin rashes, and allergic or other reactions to drugs.

Skin damage from overexposure to the sun is cumulative over the years and cannot be reversed. Once the damage occurs, it cannot be undone. Most serious and lasting damage occurs before age 18. Protection should start early, particularly with children who enjoy outdoor play on sunny days.

Potential Sun Exposure

Besides the discomfort of sunburn, other potential problems of excessive exposure to the sun exist. These range from fatal skin cancers to allergic reactions.


Skin cancer has long been associated with exposure to the sun. About one million cases are diagnosed in the United States annually, with 7,300 being fatal. A definite link between the sun and skin cancer exists. A study by the National Cancer Institute in four locations, Dallas-Fort Worth, San Francisco-Oakland, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Iowa, showed a skin cancer rate 2.5 times greater in the Sunbelt area of Dallas-Fort Worth than in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Also, Caucasians have a fatality rate from skin cancer of 4.5 per 100,000; whereas, African Americans, with more melanin or natural protection in their skin, show a rate of 0.8 percent per 100,000.

Three types of skin cancer exist: basal, squamous, and melanoma. Basal cancer is identified by pale, waxy skin eruptions or by red, scaly patches. Squamous cancer cells are scaly patches or nodules. Basal and squamous cancer are usually associated with long term exposure to the sun. If identified and treated early, these skin cancers are seldom fatal. Melanoma accounts for 76% of deaths from skin cancer, is characterized by dark, black or brown patches, and may be confused with a mole. Melanomas often start small, but grow.

They are likely to occur in people who experience bad sunburns at infrequent intervals such as on vacations. Should abnormal growth or changes in skin or moles occur, make an appointment with your doctor. All skin cancer is more controllable and less fatal when treated early.

Premature Aging of Skin

Repeated exposure to the sun damages elastin fibers in the skin and accelerates the aging process. Skin loses elasticity, starts to sag and wrinkle, and becomes leathery. The damage is irreversible, with signs beginning to show in the early 30’s of fair-skinned individuals. Once even a small amount of damage has occurred, repeated exposure to the sun increases the effect. Besides leathery, wrinkled skin, other signs of damage are brown patches or spots, or skin with a yellow or grayish hue.

Sunlight and Allergic Reactions

Many individuals have a sensitivity to sunlight that may be accelerated by certain products, medicines, or drugs. In fact, some medications or products can enhance the effect of radiation from the sun and cause a severe burn or skin eruptions in people who, under other circumstances, may be resistant to severe sunburns.

Some drugs known to increase sensitivity to sunlight include anti-bacterial agents found in medicated soaps and facial preparations, acne treatments, antihistamines, antidepressants, tranquilizers, antibiotics, diuretics, and anti-hypertension drugs. When using any of these products, be especially aware of sun exposure and possible reactions.

As with sensitivity to sunlight, some individuals have natural allergic reactions to sunlight. These may be stimulated by contact with certain plants, perfume, cosmetics, skin or suntan preparations. Usually the result includes skin blemishes that occur following sun exposure. These types of allergic reactions can often be controlled, but not eliminated.

Finally, careless exposure to the sun may be harmful to people with certain diseases. Among these are pulmonary tuberculosis, inherited skin diseases, metabolic problems, malnutrition, and alcoholism.

Always be aware of abnormal behavior in individuals who have been in the sun for long periods. This is especially true if they are taking drugs or medications, have fair complexions, or have had little previous or recent exposure to sunlight for long periods.

Eye Damage

Ultraviolet rays also cause eye damage, regardless of skin color. The incidence of cataracts increases with sun exposure. Cataracts involve a clouding of the eye lens and result in one million surgeries each year. Corneal sunburn and growths on the surface of the eye are thought to be related to long term sun exposure.

Use of sunglasses provides some eye protection. Choose sunglasses that block 99% of UV light. Note that polarized lenses and mirror-coated lenses don’t necessarily reduce UV absorption unless specifically labeled. All sunglasses offer more protection than no eye wear, but look for statements on UV ratings for best eye care.

Potential Sun Exposure: The Burning Quotient

Most people expect to sunburn on a bright, sunshiny day. Many factors affect the strength and amount of ultraviolet rays which cause burning to occur. An individual’s physical characteristics and environment affect the amount of suntanning or burning possible.

The Person

As the amount of melanin in skin increases, so does the natural protection from sunburn. Individuals with dark complexions, especially those with olive, brown, or black skin, can remain in the sun for longer periods before burning occurs. Blondes, redheads, and individuals with fair skin burn readily. In some instances, these people never tan because of the absence or very low levels of melanin in the skin. Therefore, individuals must consider their own ability to tan when selecting sun protection products and planning time in the sun.

Location and Atmospheric Conditions

The number of ultraviolet rays that reach the skin affect the speed and intensity of tanning or burning. When the atmosphere is thick, fewer ultraviolet rays pass through or reach the skin. At the equator and at higher altitudes, such as the mountains, possible radiation from the sun is greatest because of a clearer and less dense atmosphere to filter out ultraviolet rays. As one moves away from the equator or toward sea level, burning is less intense due to thicker atmospheric conditions. The number of ultraviolet rays at the equator is four times greater than those in Alaska or the southern tip of South America. Also, the southern United States receives one to one and a half times the number of ultraviolet rays as the north.

People who enjoy the sun know that severe burns are likely on hazy, overcast, cloudy-bright days. This effect is called sky radiation. The UVB rays, especially, scatter throughout molecules in the atmosphere and cause burning. Because sunlight seems less intense, less bright, and less warm, individuals normally take fewer precautions and thereby increase the potential for a bad sunburn. Be aware that tanning and burning can occur on hazy days when the sun does not appear to be shining brightly.

Have respect for ultraviolet rays from the sun. They not only create problems on hazy days but also can burn the skin through clothing or while sitting in areas shaded from direct sunlight. Ultraviolet rays bounce off bright surfaces, such as sand, and can burn individuals sitting under beach umbrellas. Umbrellas reduce sun exposure by half but should not create a false sense of protection. Sky radiation on hazy days can hit the skin at angles and burn individuals not in direct sunlight.

Ultraviolet rays pass through some fabrics such as open-weave fabrics, lightweight knits, and nylon stockings. T-shirts worn while swimming reduce burning but still allow 50 percent of ultraviolet rays to pass through. Ultraviolet rays penetrate water but lose half their intensity. Nevertheless, burning can occur on parts of the body submerged in the water.

Seasonal Conditions

The amount of ultraviolet radiation available changes with the seasons. In the North Temperate Zone, the maximum radiation possible occurs on June 21. In winter, the position of the sun allows few burning rays to reach northern U.S. locations.

Be especially careful at midday during warm weather months. Ultraviolet rays are most intense between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. Individuals who burn easily may want to plan outdoor or water activities in late afternoon. Little burning occurs before 8 a.m. and after 4 p.m.

The U.S. Weather Service has developed a daily index of anticipated UV ray intensity. The index is a scale of 0-15 with 15 being high and reflects the UV exposure for selected cities. The table on the next page explains index values

The index is distributed to weather service field operations and to the media daily. Individuals can access the index on the web site, then go to “stratosphere.”

Index ValueExposure Category
10+Very High

When exposed to intense sunlight or radiation from the sun, use extreme care and consider the many factors that may interact and cause skin damage.

Prevention of Sunburn Damage: Know Which Products Protect

Gradual sun exposure is desirable since over-exposure causes sunburn. Suntan products selected for your needs and applied properly can help prevent a burn and promote a tan. Select products that provide protection. Let’s review the various types of sun care products and evaluate those that contain ingredients to filter out ultraviolet rays (UV radiation) and limit the quantity of rays that can be absorbed by the skin. Some products offer this protection; others do not. What are differences among sun screens, sun blocks, lubricants, and pigment or artificial tanners?

Sun Screens and Sun Blocks

Sun screens and sun blocks are suntan lotions that contain one or more protective chemicals that absorb and scatter ultraviolet rays. These have a numerical rating system to indicate the specific amount of protection. The numbers, known as Sun Protection Factors (SPF), are listed on the product label. The next section will discuss these in detail.

The higher the SPF number, the greater the protection. Sun screen products, properly selected and used, allow the wearer to extend time in the sun without burning. Only opaque products, such as those containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide totally block out ultraviolet rays. Often sun blocks are packaged or promoted especially for protection of lips, nose, and ears.


Suntan preparations often contain a lubricant that reduces the drying effect of the sun on skin. However, suntan lotions, oils, gels, and other moisturizers without extra protection (sun screen), or home preparations, such as mineral oil or baby oil and iodine, only benefit as a lubricant and do not provide protection from the sun’s rays.

Artificial Tanners and Stains

Pigment lotions, artificial tanners, and temporary stains such as bronzes contain chemicals that react with the outer skin layer and color the skin without any protection, unless they also contain a sun screen. The color results are variable, sometimes streaked. Temporary stains or bronzes are water soluble, and the color is removed by washing with soap and water. Read label information to determine product characteristics and use.

Screen Selection: Use the SPF Rating

Select a sun screen or sun block product according to the SPF rating to achieve optimum protection for your needs. SPF is a numerical rating system to indicate the degree of protection provided by a sun care product. It is based on a multiple of the time required by the sun to produce a given effect (redness) on an individual’s skin without protection. For example, if your skin would normally burn in 20 minutes with no protection, using a sun screen product with an SPF of 6 means you could spend an additional 120 minutes (or 2 hours) in the sun without burning. This is based on first exposure to the sun after a lengthy period such as winter. The table on the next page will help you select sun care protection using the SPF rating with consideration to your skin type and personal history, environment or locale, and amount of time in the sun. Remember, no product can make you tan faster or more deeply than your skin characteristics will allow. Use a sun screen product to protect yourself from burn.

Guide to Sun Protection Products
Personal History
Type of Skin and Complexion
SPF Recommendation Protection Amount of Protection and Tanning
Always burn easily; never tan
Very fair, often freckled
SPF 15 or greater Ultra protection-offers most protection from sunburn; permits no tanning
Always burn easily; tan minimally
Fair complexion
SPF 8 to under 15 Maximal protection from sunburning; permits little or no suntanning
Burn moderately; tan gradually
Light to medium complexion
SPF 6-8 Extra protection from sunburning; permits limited sunburning
Burn minimally; tan well (easily)
Medium complexion
SPF 4-6 Moderate protection from sunburning; permits some suntanning
Burn rarely; always tan easily and deeply
Dark brown or black complexion
SPF 2-4 Minimal protection from sunburning; permits suntanning

Water Resistance and Application

Sun protection is lost through heat, humidity, perspiration, and rubbing off. Reapply sunscreen to continue protective benefits. For added protection when exposed to water, as when swimming or water skiing, look for water resistant products. Look for labels that read water resistant or water proof. Follow label directions since protection time varies, such as “protection for 30 minutes of swimming,” or “up to 80 minutes of protection while swimming.” People who are very sensitive to the sun should reapply after swimming or perspiring heavily.

Cost Considerations

To determine cost of tanning products, compare various products using SPF ratings and other benefits, and determine cost per ounce. Generally, the greater the protection, or SPF rating, the higher the cost. Cosmetic company products tend to cost more. Know your protection needs and product options.

Clothing for Sun Protection

Covering up when in the sun is one approach to ultraviolet ray protection. Generally, fabrics with a tighter, denser weave, in dark colors, layered, and a matte or dull finish, give the best protection. Unfortunately, these fabrics tend to be hot and less comfortable to wear. Knit constructions, such as cotton t-shirts, give relatively poor protection (SPF rating of 4.8) since UV rays pass through loops on the knit structure.

Several companies are marketing sunlight or UV resistant fabric. The constructions are woven and range from 100% Supplex nylon fiber content to a high performance polyester which utilizes a ceramic blended polymer that absorbs UV radiation and reflects visible radiation.

Comparisons between effectiveness of fabrics are difficult since some tests measure SPF factors or “sun-burning time” while others measure actual transmission of ultraviolet rays. The Supplex nylon reportedly blocks 50% ultraviolet rays while some polyester and nylon constructions block up to 96% of UVA and UVB rays and suggest SPF ratings of 30-35. Research is likely to continue on ultraviolet resistant fabrics. The Federal Trade Commission is examining these fabrics with a classification as medical devices. Claims of protective value will be regulated under FTC guidelines. In addition to clothing that covers the skin, remember to wear hats that provide protection. Brims of three inches or wider shade eyes, ears, and neck. Some styles provide loose flaps or drapes to cover ears and neck. Choose styles that allow for air circulation and offer protection as well as comfort. Many fashionable styles are available that are good-looking and functional.

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