Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital

Sun Safety

Sun Safety

Sun safety for the entire family

While everybody needs some sun exposure to help the body produce vitamin D (which helps in the absorption of calcium for stronger and healthier bones), unprotected exposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays can cause damage to the skin, eyes, and immune system. It can also cause cancer. Skin cancer is increasing at a dramatic rate, particularly among people in their 20s. In fact, most children receive between 50 and 80 percent of their lifetime sun exposure before they reach the age of 18. Although there are other contributing factors, including heredity and environment, sunburn and excessive UV light exposure does damage the skin, and this damage can lead to skin cancer.

What does tanning do to the skin?

Tanning is the skin's response to UV light - a protective reaction to prevent further injury to the skin. However, tanning does not prevent skin cancer.

What is ultraviolet radiation?

Energy from the sun reaches the earth as visible, infrared, and ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Only UVA and UVB ultraviolet rays reach the earth's surface. The earth's atmosphere absorbs UVC wavelengths.

In most cases, ultraviolet rays react with a substance called melanin, which is found in the skin. This is the first defense against the sun, as it is the melanin that absorbs the dangerous UV rays that can do serious skin damage. Sunburn develops when the amount of UV damage exceeds the protection that the skin's melanin can provide. While a small amount of exposure to sunlight is healthy and pleasurable, too much can be dangerous. Measures should be taken to prevent overexposure to sunlight in order to reduce the risks of cancers, premature aging of the skin, the development of cataracts, and other harmful effects.

How can you protect yourself against the sun's harmful rays?

The best means of protecting yourself against the damaging effects of the sun is by limiting exposure and protecting the skin.

The best way to prevent sunburn in children over 6 months of age is to follow the "Be Sun Smartsm" tips from the American Academy of Dermatology:

Remember, sand and pavement reflect UV rays even while under an umbrella. Snow is also a good reflector of UV rays. Reflective surfaces can reflect up to 85 percent of the damaging sun rays.

Also, take special care to purchase protective eye wear for you and your children. Purchase sunglasses with labels ensuring they provide UV protection.

Be sure to remember that many over-the-counter and prescription medications increase the skin's sensitivity to UV rays. As a result, people can develop a severe sunburn in just minutes when taking certain medications. Read medication labels carefully and use extra sunscreen as needed.

What are sunscreens?

Sunscreens protect the skin against sunburns and play an important role in blocking the penetration of ultraviolet (UV) radiation. However, no sunscreen blocks UV radiation 100 percent.

Terms used on sunscreen labels can be confusing. The protection provided by a sunscreen is indicated by the sun protection factor (SPF) listed on the product label. A product with an SPF higher than 15 is recommended for daily use. Sunscreens contain ingredients that help absorb UV light whereas sunblocks contain ingredients that physically scatter and reflect UVB light. Keep in mind that most sunblock products do not protect against UVA rays.

How to use sunscreens

A sunscreen protects from sunburn and minimizes suntan by absorbing UV rays. Using sunscreens correctly is important in protecting the skin. Consider the following recommendations:

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