Sunburns Are Stupid, So Don’t Get One

Skin cancer rates continue to rise, despite broad awareness of sun-exposure risks. Let’s review wise choices and best practices.

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beach sunset

The sun can hurt you.

You know it. We all do. The tan so prized by past generations is no longer fashionable because we’ve learned tans can lead to melanoma – skin cancer. Even though we know better, most of us still don’t do enough to protect ourselves from the sun.

We’ve been told about the need for sufficient SPF* and the dangers of UV** rays, but melanoma rates have been rising for 30 years. Each year, around 3.7 million new cases are diagnosed in the United States, and 10,000 people die from it. Even if you don’t tan or burn yourself to death, too much sun can age your skin in dog years.

With so many ways to avoid cooking your skin, there’s no excuse for coming home from a day outdoors burned bright red and one step closer to melanoma. Let’s go over them.

Wear sunscreen. We repeat, wear sunscreen.

Duh. You know this, but we’re telling you again. Wearing sunscreen every day can cut your risk of melanoma by 80 percent. Sunscreens contain chemicals or minerals that absorb and deflect the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation. Mineral filters sit on top of the skin and physically block those UVs. Chemical filters absorb them.

The sun breaks down chemical filters after a couple of hours, and you’ll sweat the mineral filters off, which is why every skin cancer-prevention group in existence recommends reapplying a shot-glass-sized gob of sunscreen every two hours.

The SPF number measures the amount of sun protection in the sunscreen. The higher the number, the stronger the sunscreen. There are products with SPFs as high as 100, but skip the insanely high ones because they don’t offer a lot more protection than lower SPFs. An SPF of 50 is plenty.

There are two types of UV radiation: UVB rays, which burn the top layer of your skin and cause cancer, and UVA rays, which penetrate deep and give your the skin damage trifecta of age spots, wrinkles and cancer. Some sunscreens only block UVBs. Be sure to buy a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both kinds.

Stay in the shade.

Another duh. If you can’t get under a tree, make your own shade with an umbrella or canopy. Also, stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when UV rays are at the height of their skin-destroying power.

Cover up.

Wearing clothes is the best way to prevent sunburn. Shirts, hats, shorts and pants block UV rays and reduce your burn risk by 27 percent. The protective capacity of clothing is measured in UPFs (ultraviolet protection factor), the fabric version of SPF. The more dense the fabric and the darker its color, the higher the UPF. A white cotton T-shirt has a UPF of 4, which means it lets 1/4 of the sun’s UVs hit your skin. A blue T-shirt has a UPF of 18. You can buy specialized clothing with UPFs as high as 115.

Pay attention to altitude.

If you’re in the mountains, you’ll burn faster. There’s less atmosphere to block UVs, so your exposure increases 4 percent for every 1,000-foot gain in elevation. You’ll burn 28 percent faster in Santa Fe, N.M., 20 percent faster in Denver. And if happen to be at the summit of Mt. Everest, you’ll burn around 115 percent faster (make sure your Sherpa packs sunscreen).

Pay attention to latitude.

The closer you get to the equator, the faster you’ll burn, because the sun’s rays don’t have to travel as far to reach the ground – and your skin.  The southern United States gets 1.5 times more sunlight than the northern United States, so you’ll need more sunscreen in Miami than you will on Cape Cod.

Don’t forget your dog.

He can get a sunburn, too. Dogs with thin fur, white fur or pink skin are most susceptible. Hairless dogs can burn faster than a redhead in Tahiti at noon. You can buy sunscreens made especially for pets, but child-safe sunscreens work, too. Slather it on your dog’s tender parts: his ears, nose, belly and groin. The best way to keep your four-legged child safe is to keep him in the shade in the heat of the day and only walk him in the morning or evening.

As if we weren’t doing enough to harm the planet.

Protecting our skin is killing coral reefs. Oxybenzone, a chemical found in more than 3,500 brands of sunscreen, is toxic to coral. Every year, as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion washes off our bodies and into the seas, where it impacts reefs. Hawaii recently banned the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and initiated the Safe Sunscreen Council, which lists environmentally friendly sunscreen products.

So you’ve read all of this and you’re thinking, “A spray tan. That’s the way to go. No skin cancer, no premature wrinkles, no coral-killing goop.” Welp. When you step inside one of those spray tan booths, you’re inhaling a chemical called dihydorxyacetone that may or may not be safe. The FDA has approved it for external use on your skin, but not for internal use. The best advice? Learn to love being pale and leave the toffee-colored skin to the people who were born with it.

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* SPF stands for sun protection factor. The higher the number, the more protection from the sun. We’re putting it here because most people speak SPF and we don’t want to appear to be mansplaining.

** UV stands for ultraviolet rays. This is the stuff that causes cancer. We’ve put this down here in a footnote because, mansplaining.