Sunburn and sunshine: 4 surprising ways your skin can be damaged

Summer is right around the corner. Thoughts of long sunny days spent at the beach, on the water fishing or out in the yard gardening remind us to protect ourselves from too much sun exposure. But sunburn can also happen when you least expect it. Even when we’re not outside for long periods of time enjoying the summer sun, we should be concerned about the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays.

Incidental sun exposure refers to the kind of exposure you get during everyday activities, such as walking the dog or going to and from your car. It’s not as obvious as a day at the beach, but it adds up over time. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, incidental sun exposure accumulated during your lifetime is linked to an increased risk of skin cancer.

Have you ever been sunburned without knowing how it happened? Here are four lesser-known ways the sun can damage your skin.

  1. It’s easy to think you’re protected from the sun on a cloudy day, but actually, more than 90 percent of UV rays can shine through light cloud cover.
  2. Sun exposure can’t be ignored while swimming, either. Up to 40 percent of UV rays can penetrate shallow water.
  3. Don’t forget reflected light. Sand, water and snow reflect between 25 and 80 percent of UV rays. Hiking or skiing in the mountains can also mean more sun exposure because UV radiation increases with altitude.
  4. Surprisingly, a significant amount of sun exposure can occur even when you’re not outside! The type of rays that cause sunburns (UVB rays) are blocked by glass, but up to 60 percent of UVA radiation linked to premature aging (UVA) can penetrate glass. Sitting by a window for extended periods of time throughout the day, whether it is in a car or a building, can increase harmful sun exposure.

A study conducted in France found that people with more skin damage to one side of their face spent a significant part of their job driving. Although windshields are laminated and filter out UVA rays, side and back windows are not and can let in skin-damaging UVA rays. The sun exposure drivers received through the side window contributed to uneven aging on their face. In fact, American drivers have more skin cancers on the left side of their face.

The lesson? Protecting your skin from overexposure to the sun is always important, no matter where you are or what the season. Follow these guidelines to prevent premature aging and reduce your risk of skin cancer.

  • Apply broad spectrum sunscreen (SPF 30) every day and apply one ounce to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside.
  • Reapply every two hours (more often if you’ll be sweating or swimming).
  • Seek shade, especially between 10am to 4pm.
  • Wear sun protective clothing or add sun protection, such as SunGard by RIT, when you wash your clothes.
  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat.
  • Protect your eyes with UV-blocking sunglasses.
  • Avoid tanning beds.
  • Examine your skin every month.
  • See your physician every year for a professional skin exam, and make it a daily routine to protect your skin!

Joanne Ebner is a cancer prevention program supervisor at the AAMC Geaton and JoAnn DeCesaris Cancer Institute.

Originally published April 26, 2016. Last updated June 18, 2018.

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