Limiting your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, a leading cause of skin cancer, is the most impactful way to protect your skin. This can be easier said than done — a number of misconceptions about UV rays make it difficult to take appropriate precautions and practice true sun safety.
In honor of UV Safety Awareness Month, observed every July, take a closer look at how this type of radiation actually affects the skin — and one other very important organ, too!
What are UV rays?
Before we debunk common misconceptions about UV rays, let’s review what they are.
Radiation refers to the emission of electromagnetic energy from any source. There are many types of radiation, with varying intensity, or frequencies. At one end of the spectrum are the high-energy x-rays and gamma rays. At the other are the long-wavelength, low-energy radio waves. Visible light is also a form of electromagnetic energy — the only one that humans can see — and different colors have different wavelengths.
UV radiation sits in the middle of the spectrum. Since UV rays don’t have enough energy to penetrate the body more deeply, they primarily affect the skin. These rays come from the sun as well as artificial sources like tanning beds. Similar to how there are many colors with distinct wavelengths within the medium-frequency category of visible light, there are different types of UV radiation with different amounts of energy.
UVA and UVB rays are the main types to be mindful of as you consider how to limit your UV exposure.
Lower-energy UVA rays are primarily associated with skin damage like wrinkles but can also contribute to the development of skin cancer.
Higher-energy UVB rays are the main source of sunburns and skin cancer.
UVC rays exist as well, but they have so much energy that sun-emitted UVC radiation reacts with ozone before it can even reach the ground, let alone your skin. This is why they don’t often surface in conversations about sun protection. However, it’s still possible to be exposed to these UV rays from artificial sources including lamps and lasers.
Now, onto some UV myth-busting.
Myth: You don’t have to worry about UV radiation on cold or cloudy days
You may feel the sun less when temperatures drop, but UV protection is a year-round effort. The sun’s heat comes from infrared rays — another important form of electromagnetic energy — which don’t harm the skin. Lower temperatures might result in less infrared radiation, but not less UV radiation, so any change in the sun’s output on colder days does not affect your risk for sunburn or skin damage. In fact, winter brings an additional risk for UV radiation exposure, as bright snow reflects UV rays, sending them back in your direction.
Meanwhile, cloudy days also require vigilant UV protection. Though it’s true that UV levels are highest on clear, cloudless days, these rays can still make their way to the ground even under gloomy weather.
Myth: UV radiation only damages fair skin
It’s true that skin tone is a factor in your risk for skin cancer, and people with light, fair skin generally face the highest risk. However, skin cancer can affect anyone regardless of age, race, gender, or ethnicity, and the relationship between melanin — the pigment that produces different skin tones — and UV radiation is nuanced.
Darker skin has higher amounts of melanin than lighter skin. Since melanin blocks a certain amount of UV rays, a person with darker skin is less likely to get sunburned. At the same time, having more melanin does not make a person immune to the harmful effects of UV radiation, which can increase the risk of skin cancer without causing a sunburn.
Myth: Regular sunscreen usage causes vitamin D deficiency
Vitamin D, which helps your body absorb calcium, is essential for strong bone health. It can also boost immunity and support a healthy nervous system. Sunlight is a primary source of vitamin D production, along with vitamin D-rich foods such as trout, salmon, egg yolks, and vitamin-D fortified milk and cereal, and nutritional supplements.
While more sunshine may increase vitamin D production, UV protection doesn’t equal vitamin D deficiency. With other options for consuming this important nutrient, you can practice sun safety and get those vitamins in.
Myth: High-SPF sunscreen alone will protect your skin from UV rays
That number on every bottle of sunscreen is often misunderstood. SPF, which stands for sun protection factor, is a measure of UV exposure rather than the duration of protection. An SPF number indicates how much UV radiation it would take to burn your skin when using that product as opposed to if you were not wearing any sunscreen.
A higher SPF does provide more protection than lower ones, in terms of the percentage of UV rays you are exposed to. What it won’t do is protect your skin for a longer duration of time, and simply applying an SPF 50 sunscreen or higher does not make you immune to the risks of sun exposure. Other factors affect how much a sunscreen protects you, including when you’re out in the sun — solar energy fluctuates throughout the day, and an hour of UV exposure at 9 am equals 15 minutes at 1 pm — and skin type.
In fact, the false sense of security offered by a higher number can sometimes lead to a sunburn: because of the confusion surrounding sunscreen and SPF numbers, many people spend longer time outdoors when wearing a higher SPF. It’s recommended to apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside and again every two hours, or right after swimming.
One other consideration to be mindful of: standard sunscreen products — including some high SPF options — only protect you from UVB rays. To prevent the skin damage and premature aging caused by UVA rays, opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which offers protection against both types of UV radiation.
Myth: UV ray protection is limited to skincare
Skin isn’t the only organ harmed by UV rays — high exposure can also increase your risk of eye health issues, including cataracts, eye cancers, non-cancerous growths, and snow blindness. Sunglasses are a great defense, but be sure to purchase a pair that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. Additionally, general sun safety practices like wearing a hat, carefully planning your outdoor time, and avoiding tanning beds will protect your eyes as well as your skin.
Your UV protection checklist
It takes a strategy bigger than sunscreen to protect yourself from UV radiation. Here’s what the experts recommend.
Apply sunscreen every day, regardless of temperature or weather conditions. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 or higher. (Don’t forget to reapply every two hours no matter the SPF!)
Supplement sunscreen with a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses with UV protection, and sun protective-clothing like long-sleeved shirts with light fabrics. Also, some clothing offers even more effective sun protection — look for options with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) number.
Seek shade and try to stay out of direct sunlight between 10 am to 2 pm, when UV radiation peaks.
Opt for self-tanning products over tanning beds — when it comes to skin health, artificial UV radiation is no less harmful than the sun’s rays.
Be especially vigilant with both skin and eye protection when you’re near reflective surfaces like water, snow, and sand.
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This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or another qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.