Summer means fun in the sun, from outdoor sports to family picnics to beach vacations—and it’s a bright idea to protect yourself while enjoying those rays.
As great as it feels to bask in the sun, the light and heat pose both short- and long-term risks—ranging from sunburn and heat exhaustion to skin cancer and eye damage.
The good news is that you can take simple measures to reduce your risks while you enjoy your time in the sun.
Here are some of the best tips from experts on how to stay safe in the sun this summer, whether you’re growing tomatoes in your garden, swimming in a backyard pool or hitting the road for a summer vacation.
Keep Cool and Stay Hydrated
One of the biggest problems on hot, sunny summer days is dehydration. “People working out in the yard or playing sports can get pretty severely dehydrated,” says Jay Woody, M.D., founder of Legacy ER & Urgent Care in Texas. And, as you age, your risk of dehydration increases. Adults 50 and up should be especially vigilant about staying hydrated, he adds.
If you plan to spend less than an hour outside on an activity that’s not very strenuous, like walking, you can count on water to help you stay hydrated, according to Cleveland Clinic. However, if you’ll be outside for longer than an hour, or doing something more strenuous, like tennis, reach for a sports drink.
It’s important to drink before you start to feel thirsty. Thirst signals that you’re already at least five to 10 percent less hydrated than you should be, he says.
To maintain your level of hydration, drink 16 to 20 ounces of liquid one to two hours before going outside. While you’re outside, have another six to 12 ounces every 10 to 15 minutes. And after you come back inside, have another 16 to 24 ounces.—Cleveland Clinic
Dehydration can lead to heat-related illness, especially on humid days, according to Mayo Clinic. Alcohol use and wearing heavy clothing can add to the risk as well.
There are three types of heat-related illness:
- heat cramps, the mildest form
- heat exhaustion, which is worse
- heatstroke, which can be deadly
Heat-related illness occurs when your body has trouble regulating its internal temperature. Watch for symptoms of heat cramps, which can include tiredness, severe sweating and cramps in your arms, back, legs, stomach or other muscles. By watching for signs and taking action, you may be able to prevent heat cramps from progressing to heat exhaustion or heatstroke.
If you’re out in the heat and you start to feel ill, get out of the sun and into a cool place, drink fluids and sit in front of a fan if possible, Woody says. It’s best to drink a clear juice or a sports drink with electrolytes, according to Mayo Clinic.
If your body temperature reaches 104 degrees, heatstroke can occur. Heatstroke is not to be taken lightly; it is a serious medical emergency. Symptoms of heatstroke include agitation, confusion, nausea, slurred speech and vomiting. If you suspect that you or someone else may be suffering from heatstroke, call 911 and move the victim to a cooler spot right away.
Use anything you can to cool the person down—for example, a tub filled with cool water, a garden hose, ice packs or wet towels—while waiting for help to arrive, Mayo Clinic recommends.
Safeguard Your Skin From the Sun
Anytime you go outside, it’s crucial to protect your skin from the sun, advises David Bank, M.D., assistant clinical professor of dermatology at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, in New York, and author of “Beautiful Skin: Every Woman’s Guide to Looking Her Best at Any Age.”
The three most common types of skin cancer, basal cell, squamous cell and malignant melanoma, are all linked to spending time in the sun, according to the American Cancer Society.
The first type, basal cell, is “far and away the most common and, fortunately, the least dangerous,” Bank says. Malignant melanoma is the “really scary one. Fortunately, it’s also the least common,” he adds.
However, it’s easy to shield yourself. “Putting on sun protection or sun block is the number one thing people can do,” Bank explains. And you don’t need to worry too much about what kind of sunscreen you use, as long as you use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has an SPF of 15 or higher, according to the CDC. “The best sunscreen is one you will use,” Bank says.
If you’re going to be outside for longer than a few minutes, especially if you’ll be sweating or swimming, use a water-resistant sunscreen, he recommends. And choose one of at least SPF 30, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends.
Put on two tablespoons of sunscreen a half hour before going out into the sun, and then reapply either every two hours or right after sweating or swimming.—Skin Cancer Foundation
For even more protection, consider wearing a hat with a brim and sun-blocking clothing, Bank recommends. But don’t count on clothes to replace sunscreen, the CDC warns. For example, a typical T-shirt offers you less protection than an SPF 15 sunscreen, so it’s important to slather on the sunscreen underneath your clothes, too. Darker-colored clothing will shield you from the rays better than lighter-colored clothes, and a dry shirt will protect you more than a wet one.
Also, be aware of the fact that some over-the-counter and prescription medications can cause increased sensitivity to the sun. Check with your doctor or pharmacist and if you are on one of these drugs, take extra precautions, such as wearing a floppy hat and trying to stay in the shade when possible, Bank suggests. The list of drugs that cause photosensitivity include some antibiotics, some antidepressants, some arthritis drugs and even ibuprofen.
“Someone might be taking Advil for their tennis elbow and not even realize it makes them more sensitive to the sun,” Bank warns.
Some essential oils can make you more sensitive to sunlight as well, such as citrus oils. So, if you have an aromatherapy message, for instance, you’ll want to stay out of the sun for at least 12 hours.
Protect Your Eyes From the Rays
Your skin isn’t the only body part that can be harmed by the sun. Be on the lookout for ways to safeguard your eyes from the sun’s rays, too.
UV light, especially UVA light, can cause cumulative damage to your eyes over time, warns Brian Boxer Wachler, M.D., a Beverly Hills, California, eye surgeon.
As with the skin, the sun poses both short-term and long-term dangers to the eyes. For example, the sun can cause burns to the corneas, which can cause pain and blurry vision until the surface of the cornea heals, Boxer Wachler says. The most common cause: sunbathing without sunglasses.
Over time, sun damage can lead to skin cancer around the eyes, earlier development of cataracts, and damage to the whites of the eyes. This damage can show up as a “permanently bloodshot” look, yellowing or pigmentation that looks like brown freckles in the whites of the eyes, Boxer Wachler explains.
Fortunately, you can protect your eyes and prevent this kind of sun damage by slipping on a pair of shades. And you don’t have to drop a lot of cash on sunglasses to keep your eyes safe. In fact, Boxer Wachler and some colleagues bought and tested cheap sunglasses from stores in Venice Beach, California. The researchers found that all the sunglasses had “outstanding UV protection.”
—Brian Boxer Wachler, M.D.
Just stick with a reputable brand and go for a wraparound frame design that hugs the sides of your face for maximum protection, he recommends.
“Sunglasses are like sunscreen for the eyes,” Boxer Wachler adds.
Drive Safely in the Summer Sun
If you’re heading out on a summer vacation or just driving to the grocery store to stock up for a barbecue, you also need to protect yourself from the sun in your car.
In a 2016 study, Boxer Wachler studied the levels of UVA light that come through car side windows. He examined 29 automobiles made between 1990 and 2014. The average UVA light blocked by the front windshield was 96 percent, while the percentage blocked by the side windows was lower and varied from car to car, with an average of 71 percent. The findings provide a clue as to why more skin cancers and cataracts occur on the left side of the body, he says, as that is the side of the body exposed to the sun when driving.
If you want to check your car windows, Boxer Wachler offers a free UV meter card that you can order through his website. If your car side windows are letting in too much UV light, you can have an aftermarket UV-blocking film installed on your side windows.—Brian Boxer Wachler, M.D.
Otherwise, you could be sustaining sun damage while driving. “People just don’t think about it,” he says.
Stay Safe at the Pool, Lake or Ocean
And if you’re having fun in the water, watch out. It’s easy to get a bad sunburn when you’re hanging out in a pool or lake all day, Woody warns.
That’s because people don’t consider that sunlight reflects off water, and they also forget to reapply sunscreen. In addition, the cooling effect of the water puts concerns about the sun and heat out of mind.
The key is to reapply sunscreen frequently throughout the day. And if you’re bald or have thinning hair, consider wearing a hat, Woody recommends.
Remember to plan for your summer fun by stocking up on sunscreen, a floppy hat, sunglasses and maybe even some sports drinks. Check the weather and take extra precautions on those days when the heat index gets very high.
“You have to be prepared for those hot, sunny days,” Woody says.
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