Sun and prevention: tips for exposing yourself to the sun safely

Sun and prevention: tips for exposing yourself to the sun safely

Publication date: 01-07-2024

Updated on: 03-07-2024

Topic: Dermatology

Estimated reading time: 1 min

Exposure to the sun, and specifically the sun's rays, is one of the main causes of the occurrence of skin cancers. Prevention from an early age turns out to be the right weapon to combat radiation damage.

We discuss preventive actions to safeguard our skin with Dr. Giovanni Paolino, a dermatologist at the Dermatology Department of Ospedale San Raffaele, directed by Professor Santo Raffaele Mercuri, and at the Melanoma and Skin Tumors Disease Unit of the Cancer Center. 

Prevention by age

Sun exposure is important for human mental and physical well-being. With the right precautions and through the use of appropriate accessories (hats, visors, sunglasses), sun exposure can become safe for our skin. It is therefore appropriate for skin cancer prevention to follow a few simple guidelines, also calibrated to the age group and personal history.

0 to 18 months

"It is important to avoid exposure to the sun's rays during the first 18 months of life. Such young children have not yet developed the defenses necessary for proper photo exposure.

Infants are also more likely to have an increased body temperature, and this can cause early dehydration and organ damage, including that to the skin, the largest organ in the human body," Dr. Paolino explains.

18 months to adulthood

In older children, adolescents and adults, sun exposure should initially be gradual: from a few minutes the first few days, increasing by about 7 minutes each subsequent day.  

Prevention for those with a family history

Patients with personal and family histories of melanoma (with or without familial genetic mutations) should pay close attention to sun exposure:

"The same advice applies to them as to the general population, with the added caution of targeted, more time-restricted dermatologic check-ups based on family history of each person," the doctor specifies.

Finally, artificial tanning methods (tanning lamps, tanning beds, sun showers) can greatly increase the risk of developing skin cancers, such as melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma. So they should be avoided.

Sunburns: photo protective creams and mechanical filters

Sudden and abrupt sunburns are among the leading causes of cell damage and occurrence of skin cancers over time. 

"We need to avoid sun exposure in the middle hours, in the time slot from 11:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and protect the skin with the right garments," the expert indicates. 

Sand, snow, ice and water reflect the sun's rays, the so-called mirror effect, so one must always pay close attention by applying:

  • sunscreen photo protective creams;
  • mechanical filters (hat, sunglasses that can filter UVA and UVB rays paying attention to the CE label).

Clouds might mislead, making people feel less heat, but ultraviolet rays still pass through, causing damage to the skin. 

Sunscreens: how and when to apply them

Sunscreen products (creams against the sun rays) can be defined as chemical barriers that help reduce the onset of erythema and prevent melanocytic and non-melanocytic skin cancers. 

"Sunscreen creates a barrier that prevents UV rays from causing DNA damage to skin cells. It should be applied daily, about 15 minutes before leaving the house, remembering also that chronic sun damage occurs 12 months a year, mainly affecting photo-exposed areas such as: 

  • the head & neck regions;
  • the back of the hands," the doctor continues.

Therefore, it is also important to protect oneself in the autumn and winter months.

As for the body, it is important to use sunscreen to be applied about every 2 hours, affecting at least 2 milligrams of cream per square centimeter of skin. 

"Cream should be applied to the entire body surface, while protective sticks to be placed on individual nevi are completely unnecessary. Sunscreens with reported total protection are misleading and not corresponding to reality. It should be remembered that the protective role of sunscreen can be diminished by contact with water and surfaces, so it is important to reapply several times over the course of exposure," the doctor emphasizes.

Sun protection factors (SPFs): most suitable for proper prevention

The sun protection factor (SPF), usually listed on creams, should be between 30 and 50, with variations depending on skin phototype. 

“Skin phototype is a common dermatological classification method for the purpose of determining a person's skin type, based on their sensitivity to exposure to sunlight and is determined by the quantity and quality of the melanin present in the skin which gives it its characteristic and unique color," Dr. Paolino explains.

The photo-protective cream should be chosen according to the skin phototype:

  • SPF50+ in case of very fair skin and red or blond hair (phototype 1);  
  • SPF between 50+ and 30+ for patients with blond/light brown hair, light eyes, fair complexion often with freckles or in patients with brown hair, brown/light eyes, moderately dark complexion (phototype 2 and 3, respectively);
  • SPF30+ for all other phototypes (phototype 4 characterized by dark brown or black hair, dark eyes, olive complexion, and phototypes 5 and 6 respectively with dark hair, black eyes and brown/olivaceous skin, and persons with black skin, black hair and black eyes).

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