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Health Beat: Stay safe in the sun this summer

By Dr. Eric Howell

Eastern Dermatology and Pathology

May is an exciting time in Eastern North Carolina, as the days lengthen and the weather warms and outdoor activities in the sun become more prevalent.  With summer right around the corner, I’ll share some tips to enjoy your time outside as safely as possible.

I enjoy being outdoors as much as anyone, and I found myself thinking recently about a public health campaign that was started years ago in Australia to help reduce the rising rates of skin cancer.  The campaign was called “Slip-Slop-Slap”, and it had a real impact in changing behavior and reducing skin cancer rates in Australia, and hopefully it can remind us of some simple ways to help protect our skin from the sun.

“Slip” refers to slip on a shirt, and while that may sound like a normal activity we all do every day, with the abundance of water activities and heat around here it can be awfully tempting to wear less clothing when the temperature and the humidity rise.  Fortunately, there are many new forms of sun-protective clothing that can be both comfortable and cooling in the sun. Many clothing companies produce shirts containing fabric that blocks ultraviolet rays and feels cool to the touch.  Look for clothing that has a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of at least 30. Light-colored cotton shirts provide the least amount of protection from the sun, especially when they get wet, so try and avoid white cotton t-shirts on a shot, sunny day.

“Slop” refers to slop on some sunscreen, something many of do on a day trip to the beach or swimming pool.  But I find that very few people think about sunscreen when working in the yard, or playing a round of golf, or watching a grandchild at the ballfield. We all get more sun than we realize, and wearing sunscreen is a simple and effective way to stay safe in the sun.

These days, there are so many types of sunscreen that it can be a little overwhelming when trying to find the right one to buy at the store. People ask me all the time what the best sunscreen is, and the simplest answer is the one that feels best on your skin and you will actually use. It really doesn’t matter if it is a spray, a lotion, a cream or a stick, as long as you apply it evenly to your skin and cover all exposed areas you can choose what you like.  Many people fret over the SPF (sun protective factor) number, and while this is important, you don’t have to find the absolute highest number.  A minimum SPF of 30 is recommended, but I prefer a 50 if you can find one you like.  Once you get above SPF 50 the added benefit becomes quite small. And while there have been some news reports recently about the safety of some sunscreens, the details of which are beyond the space I have here to discuss, I feel very comfortable with the safety of all the sunscreens you can find readily at your local pharmacy or grocery.

“Slap” refers to slap on a hat, and this is a very important step many forget.  As we get older, it is natural to get a little thinner on top, and the scalp is an area of skin that is extremely susceptible to skin cancer. Even those young ones among us will benefit from the shade a hat provides, especially if it is broad-brimmed and able to shade the ears.  Another consideration when it comes to hat selection is material, as it can be tempting to wear a mesh hat or thin material that provides some ventilation but doesn’t block out the sun.  If you can hold your hat up to the sun and see the rays shining through, it is likely not blocking out enough sun on your head.

If we remember to slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat his summer, we can all enjoy the benefits of being outdoors this summer.

The sun is not all bad, a fact many dermatologists fail to remember at times.  The joy of working and playing outdoors is good for the soul and body.  But remember that too much of a good thing can be bad, and that is definitely true when it comes to sun exposure.  So remember to be sun safe and have a wonderful summer.

Dr. Eric Howell, FAAD, Dermatologist at Eastern Dermatology and Pathology located at 142 Avon Avenue in Washington, can be reached by calling 252-946-1340.