Health Matters: Protect yourself and loved ones from sun exposure

Sunscreen Prevention

June 13, 2019

By Nurse Educator Karrie Fairbrother, BSN, RN, DNC, CDE from the Helena Independent Record on May 29, 2019

As a school kid, I remember being told that the skin was your largest organ, but not much more than that. According to the International Society of Dermatology, our skin protects us from viral and bacterial infection, regulates and maintains body temperature, assists in producing vitamin D, and also transmits touch, pressure, temperature, pain and itch. Our skin does so much it’s no wonder we need to protect it.

However, we are not doing a great job. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five of us will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. In recent decades, clothing styles have changed exposing more skin. Too many prioritize a glowing tan today over healthy skin for the decades to come. Melanoma, a form of skin cancer, has increased 800% from 1970 to 2009 in women between 18 and 39.

I have been sharing the message to “love and protect the skin you are in” for many years. This message is so important because skin cancer is sneaky and often shows up years after we have enjoyed that tanned, but damaged skin. The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention’s annual Don’t Fry Day (always the Friday before Memorial Day weekend) serves as a helpful reminder to protect and know our skin, getting it checked if we see changing spots or lesions.

Fortunately, there are simple ways to enjoy our Montana lifestyle while being sun safe.

Clothing is the oldest method of skin protection

Companies manufacture sun protective clothing at many price levels with UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) of 30-50+. The higher the number the better. While a typical summer T-shirt will have a UPF of 5 and block 20 percent, clothing with a UPF of 50+ will block about 98% of UV radiation (for covered areas).

There are even wash-in products that increase the UPF of natural fibers to 30 and last up to 20 washings. A dark wash load and a light wash load with this product could help a family get through the summer. Naturally dense, dark fibers like denim do block UV rays and Montanans have long used this natural fiber for sun protection. Add sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim that protects the face, ears and back of neck.

Cover unprotected skin with sunscreen, protect your eyes with UV blocking sunglasses

Generously apply broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF (Sun Protection Factor) of at least 30 to all exposed skin. Reapply every two hours, even on cloudy days and sooner if you sweat or get wet! Waterproof sunscreen is a misnomer because sunscreens can only be water resistant.

If the choice is a spray sunscreen, do not spray the face and use caution when spraying above children to prevent them from inhaling it or getting it in their eyes.

Sunscreen does get old. If it has separated or smells off, it should not be used. Remember to protect your lips, too, by using and frequently applying lip balm with at least 15 SPF.

Also, some medications make you more susceptible to burning so sun protection and or UV avoidance is necessary.

Seek the shade

Historically, many cultures took time during the height of the day to rest, eat and stay out of the sun to protect their skin. We can do the same when planning our work or play. Our high altitude is another risk and combined with the sand, water and snow increase our risk for sun damaged skin. We teach children that if they don’t see their long shadow, they need to seek shade. Short shadow: seek shade.

A great way for kids and adults to be better prepared is to check the UV index. Any number over 0-2 (Low danger) is a signal that we need to:

1. Stay in the shade near midday

2. If outdoors, wear protective clothing, a wide brimmed hat and UV blocking sun glasses

3. Generously apply broad spectrum SPF30+ sunscreen and replace it every two hours or sooner if you sweat or get wet.

4. Watch out for bright surfaces like sand, water or snow, which reflect UV and increase exposure.

Many Montana days our UV index is over 7. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), on days where the UV index exceeds 6, everyone should strive to reduce their time in the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.

I encourage everyone to enjoy our wonderful Montana lifestyle. Protect yourself and your loved ones. Sun safe your largest organ.