By Kristin Cam Missmar, MD
With summertime upon us, you’ve probably started to schedule pool time and weekend hikes or beach outings. But have you made a plan for protecting your skin while you’re outside soaking up the sun? Taking just a few precautionary steps can help ensure that you and your family can safely enjoy all that summer has to offer.
1. Apply Sunscreen Early and Often
One of the biggest risks of sun exposure is skin cancer, which is associated with ultraviolet rays. In fact, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lives. Prevention is key.
Make it a priority for your entire family to use sunscreen to help shield skin from harmful rays. (The exception is babies younger than six months, who should be kept out of the sun entirely.) Look for water-resistant, SPF 30 or more, broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects from both UVA and UVB rays. It also helps to use sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, as these tend to be less irritating for sensitive skin. You may also want to get a lip balm with SPF.
When applying sunscreen, use enough and apply often. Adults should use one ounce, which is about enough to fill your palm. For children, be sure to cover all exposed areas liberally, including ears and tops of the feet. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours while outdoors, and after swimming or excessive sweating.
2. Wear Protective Clothing
To aid in staying safe from the sun, consider wearing sun-protective clothing. You won’t need to worry if you’ve put on enough sunscreen, and you never need to remember to reapply (though be sure you do use sunscreen where clothes don’t cover your skin). Look for clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) labels of 30 or higher. An added bonus to donning light layers: You can also gain protection against biting bugs.
3. Keep It Loose
Infants and children are particularly at risk of prickly heat, also known as heat rash or miliaria, during the warm summer months. Caused by blocked sweat ducts that trap perspiration under the skin, it produces small, itchy red bumps. Be sure your child wears loose-fitting clothing to keep skin cool and dry. Use fans or air conditioning to keep your space cool. Prickly heat usually clears up on its own, but if the rash does not go away in a few days, see your doctor.
4. Take Cover in Shade
The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Consider spending some or all of this time in the shade. This can be a great time for an indoor nap or lunch. Just remember that even in the shade, water and sand will reflect the sun’s UV rays and increase the risk of burning.
5. Treat Sunburn
Sunburn isn’t fun, but it can happen. Anyone with a sunburn should avoid further sun exposure. You can reduce the heat of the burn by taking a cool bath or shower, then using a gentle moisturizing cream after to minimize dryness. Apply over-the-counter 1 percent hydrocortisone ointment twice a day for a few days to help with the inflammation and irritation, being sure to avoid the eyes. You can also try an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to ease minor discomfort.
See a doctor if fevers, headache, severe pain, or blisters occur. Remember that sunburn is evidence of damage to skin cells and can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer in the future.
6. Prevent Bug Bites
Bug bites can be uncomfortable and can become infected if scratched too much. To ward off bugs, use an insect repellent, such as one containing DEET, 30 percent or less. Apply only to clothing and exposed skin. Be sure to wash it off after coming indoors. Do not use bug spray on babies under two months old.
If you do end up with a few bites, gently clean them with soap and water or rubbing alcohol. Then, apply a cool compress to help reduce swelling and avoid scratching. To reduce inflammation and itching, apply hydrocortisone 1 percent ointment twice a day for a few days. See a doctor if you experience pain or fever, or if the redness spreads.
Just a few simple, preventive steps can help you and your family make the most of your summer.
Learn more about skin cancer, including risk factors and prevention, by visiting MAPMG’s Staying Healthy pages.
Kristin Cam Missmar, MD, is a board-certified dermatologist with Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. She sees patients at the Kaiser Permanente Falls Church Medical Center.