There's an old but popular bumper sticker that states, "The sun is healthy for plants and all living things." While that's true as far as it goes, it's also true that too much sun is most decidedly not good for plants and all living things. In fact, too much exposure to the sun can damage your skin and eyes, suppress your immune system, and is the leading cause of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.
We've been cautioned for years now to use sunscreen whenever we go out in the sun, but there are also other things you can do to protect yourself from the sun, not only in the summer but throughout the year.
What Are UV Rays?
If you've ever had a sunburn, you've experienced firsthand some of the damage caused by the sun's ultraviolet rays. Sunlight is made up of many different wavelengths of light and energy. UV rays are one of the invisible parts of the sun's light, but just because you can't see them doesn't mean they can't affect you. Here are the basics you should know about UV rays:
- UV rays are a form of radiation. They are present in all sunlight, even on cloudy days.
- There are three types of UV rays in sunlight. Two of them are risk factors for skin cancer and other damage from the sun.
- UVA are the weakest type of UV rays. They can cause skin damage, such as wrinkles, and can be responsible for some skin cancers and eye damage.
- UVB rays are slightly stronger than UVA and can damage the DNA in your skin directly. They are the main cause of sunburn, most skin cancers, and eye damage.
- UVC rays have more energy than the others, but because they react with ozone high in the atmosphere, they seldom reach the ground. Some human-made sources, such as mercury lamps, arc welding torches, and UV sanitizing lights, can emit UVC rays.
- UV rays can also interact with some medications and may weaken the effectiveness of some vaccines.
- Some medications make you more sensitive to UV, which can cause you to sunburn more easily.
- UV radiation can also make some medical conditions, such as migraines, lupus, and rheumatoid arthritis, worse.
- Monitoring the environmental conditions around your home with AcuRite Atlas® lets you keep a check on the UV Index in and around your home. You can connect it to AcuRite Access® to allow remote monitoring through the My AcuRite® app, which will help you plan your activities based on expected or actual UV levels.
When Is the Sun Strongest?
You'll often hear advice to avoid prolonged exposure to sunlight when the sun is at its strongest. General wisdom is to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., but it can be more complicated than that.
Here are a few more facts you should know:
- The closer you are to the equator, the stronger the sun's intensity. That's why vacationers to sunny tropical destinations tend to get sunburned so easily.
- More UV rays reach the ground at higher elevations.
- The sun's UV rays are stronger in the spring and summer months.
- UV rays bounce off surfaces, especially light and reflective surfaces, such as water, sand, snow, and pavement, so you get more exposure than you thought you were getting.
The UV Index
The UV index is a number that tells you the expected intensity of the sun's UV radiation, using the numbers 1 to 11. You'll often see it as part of the daily weather forecast. You can check the UV index in the AcuRite Atlas or include an AcuRite UV light sensor as part of another personal weather station. Knowing the daily UV Index is a good way to figure out how much protection you need for the day — or whether you should find a cool place out of the sun for the afternoon.
The UV Scale
To help interpret the UV index, use a UV scale. The higher the number, the more protection you need to avoid sun damage. People with light skin and those who burn easily should wear sunscreen even at the lowest UV Index. At moderate levels and above, everyone should be wearing sunscreen and some protective clothing.
The EPA offers this advice about personal protection based on their UV Index Scale:
- 2 or lower – Low: No protection needed.
- 3-7 – Moderate to High: Protection needed. Stay in the shade during the late morning and early afternoon. Apply sunscreen and wear protective clothing when outside.
- 8 or higher – Very High to Extreme: Extra protection needed. Apply a minimum of 15 SPF broad spectrum sunscreen on exposed skin and wear protective clothing when outdoors.
10 Sun Protection Tips
While all of this may have you questioning whether you should just spend the summer in a shady, air-conditioned room or if you should hunker away from the sun all year long, you can enjoy time outside if you take some sensible precautions, such as:
- Wear sunscreen. Most authorities recommend that you use sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, even if you don't burn. Dermatologists recommend using a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects against UVA and UVB rays.
- Remember that sunscreen washes and wears off. Reapply sunscreen any time you or your children go in the water, and at least every two hours.
- Wear sunscreen even in winter and on cloudy days.
- Wear a hat, scarf, or head covering. Wide-brimmed hats also help protect your face.
- Wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants when you'll be out in the sun during the hottest part of the day. Consider clothing made of technologically engineered fabrics with UV protection built-in. Keep in mind that wet fabric provides less UV protection than dry. Consider changing your child into a dry shirt if they swim with a shirt on.
- Wear sunglasses and glasses with UV protection to protect your eyes.
- Use shade umbrellas and sunshades on beach outings and other outdoor activities. Many of them are now made with UV protection built-in.
- Set yourself and your family up in a shaded area if you can, especially if you're out during the peak UV hours — 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- On days with a high UV index, consider indoor activities or limit sun exposure to a shorter duration. Keep in mind that you can sunburn in as little as 15 minutes, and children are more susceptible to sunburn than adults.
- Check the UV Index when making plans for the day to help you be prepared for any eventuality.
You don't have to avoid fun in the sun entirely — after all, the sun is good for all living things. Just be aware of the risks, monitor the UV Index, and use these tips to protect yourself and your loved ones from the damaging effects of the sun's UV rays.