By Dr. Shan Jiang
Summer is a wonderful time of year with so many outdoor activities that take advantage of the beautiful weather.
Sunlight can have many positive effects on the body: it can lift up your mood and help your body make vitamin D, which is used to make strong bones.
On the other hand, we need to protect ourselves against the negative effects of sunlight on our skin, which can include sunburns, skin changes, and skin cancer. As a family physician, I see patients with sunburns and sun-related skin damages quite often in the clinic during the summer months.
Once the sun’s UV rays make contact with our skin, they can cause immediate and long term changes to the skin cells over time. Sunburns are a common form of damage from sun exposure. Skin can become red, swollen, tender, and can blister and peel.
People with light/fair skin are at higher risk of being sunburned than people with darker skin. People can also have an allergic reaction to sunlight, which causes a red, itchy rash usually on exposed areas like the chest, back, arms, and legs. The allergy can be due to genetics or can be caused by exposure to certain substances like sunscreens, lotions, and perfumes. Medications, like certain antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, blood pressure medications, and diabetic medications, can also make you more sensitive to sunlight.
Repeated sun exposure can cause premature aging of the skin, wrinkles, uneven skin tone, brown spots, pre-cancerous spots, and skin cancer. Risks of developing skin cancer include repeated and prolonged exposure to sunlight without sun protection, sunburns, use of tanning beds, and family history. Melanoma is a type of skin cancer that has gained a lot of public awareness. Other types of skin cancer, like basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, can also develop from repeated sun exposure.
Most people have freckles and other harmless spots on their skin. It’s important to know what spots on your body look like, so you can be aware of any change that happens over time.
The “ABCDE” rule is a good tool to use to remember what to look for. “A” stands for Asymmetry: does the spot look uniform or uneven?, “B” stands for Borders: are the borders of the spot smooth or irregular?, “C” is for Colour: are there any changes in the colour of the spot?, “D” is for a diameter of the spot greater than 6 mm, and “E” is for Evolving: is the spot changing or evolving?
If you notice any spots on your skin that fit these criteria, please make an appointment to see your family doctor or dermatologist. A good rule of thumb is any spot that does not go away with time or treatment or is progressing, needs to be seen by a physician.
I recommend applying sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, with broad UVA and UVB coverage. Sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going outside and reapplied every two hours.
You can use chapstick with SPF to prevent sunburn of the lips and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes against UV damage, which can lead to cataracts.
You should wear light-coloured long-sleeved shirts and pants and wide-brimmed hats. Try to avoid going out during the part of the day when the sun’s rays are the strongest. Be sure to apply these methods even if it is cloudy or overcast because UV rays can penetrate through clouds.
Sun protection is especially important in babies and children, whose skins are more sensitive to UV rays. Sunscreen can be used in babies over six months.
When you are out enjoying the beautiful sunshine this summer, make sun protection a priority.
Photo: Wide-brimmed hats and using sunscreen are two ways to protect yourself from UV rays.