summer safety

Protecting Your Skin from the Sun

woman at the beach putting on sunscreenRemember when we thought slathering on baby oil to promote tanning was doing something good for our skin?

These days, a dizzying number of sunscreens and sunblocks cram stores' shelves, promising protection from the sun's damaging ultraviolet rays. If you don't have a PhD in chemistry, reading and understanding the ingredients lists on those bottles is nearly impossible.

Yet shielding your body from the sun's ultraviolet (UV) light is vital, in any weather or season. Both types of UV rays—UVA and UVB—are invisible and damaging, causing sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer. Cloudy days are no protection, since UV rays penetrate clouds. And with the earth's ozone layer thinning, solar radiation is increasing. So are all types of skin cancer, including the most serious—malignant melanoma.

Still, many of us think about using sunscreen only when we're heading out to the beach or pool. Even then, the average U.S. adult uses less than one bottle a year. That's a mistake. UV rays do their damage anytime. They can pass through window glass or reflect off concrete and snow as well as sand and water. Artificial sources of UV light, as in tanning booths, are also dangerous.

"The more sun you get, the more likely you are to get damage and potentially increase the development of melanoma and skin cancer," says Diane S. Berson, MD, Assistant Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University Weill Medical College in New York City. "We recommend that people wear sun protection every day."

Do different people get more or less damage?

The lighter your skin, the more quickly you'll burn. But darker-skinned people, who tend to tan rather than burn, are still getting UV-caused damage.

You're likely to be more sensitive to UV rays if you: