A cool sea breeze blows through your hair, your feet sink into the silky sand and it’s not too long before the sound of crashing waves lulls you into an afternoon nap under the sun. Sometimes, there’s nothing more relaxing than a day at the beach – that is, until you wake up with a bright red back or an itchy rash.
Overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can trigger a variety of reactions on your skin, from peeling sunburns to blisters and even nausea as a result of sun poisoning. In the long term, these discomforts can cause DNA damage and potentially skin cancer. In fact, over the last three decades, more people have been treated for skin cancer than all other cancers combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Before heading to the beach this summer, there’s a few things dermatologists say you should know about getting some sun.
Take precautions every day. If you’re outside when the sun’s rays are the most intense, between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., wearing sunscreen is critical, says Dr. Andrew Lazar, chief of dermatology for the Mid-Atlantic Permanente Medical Group. For the best protection from UVA and UVB rays, he recommends using a product with the label “broad spectrum.” This indicates it was tested by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and has at least an SPF of 15. About 15 minutes before going outside, you should apply an ounce, or what could fill one shot glass, of sunscreen across the body, says Dr. Catharine Lisa Kauffman, a dermatologist at Georgetown Dermatology in the District of Columbia. Make sure to cover skin that’s often missed, such as the ears, shoulders, neck, chest and the scalp. You should also reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming, she adds. But sunscreen shouldn’t be your only protection. Kauffman says it’s important to seek shade when you can, and wear at least a 3-inch brimmed hat and clothing with an SPF of 50 built into the fabric.
There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. Every summer, people flock to beaches in skimpy bikinis to lather up in tanning oil and lie out until they’ve achieved an envied bronze tone. The problem with that? Everything, says Dr. June K. Robinson, research professor in dermatology at Northwestern Medicine. “We well know that deliberate tanning with indoor or outdoor light causes the development of skin cancers later on,” she says, adding that a tan is a sign of skin damage. For her research on skin cancer prevention, Robinson interviewed about 30 female college students who tan indoors. Many knew the risks of tanning but continued to do so to “look healthier” and “more attractive,” she says.
“The mind plays tricks on young people,” Robinson says. “They think, ‘[Skin cancer] will never happen to me. I’m young. That’s for old people.’” While skin cancers generally develop after 10 years of sun exposure, Robinson says she’s treated patients as young as 15 years old for melanoma – a deadly form of skin cancer.
Some fruits and medications increase sun sensitivity. Summer often calls for a cold margarita on a hot day, but accidentally spilling lime juice on your skin could have uncomfortable consequences, Kauffman says. “Lime juice is a photosensitizer. If the juice drips on your arm, you can get blisters and a sunburn in the area that is exposed to [the sun],” she says. (She recommends applying sunscreen before heading to the bar.) Other citrus fruits and celery are known to cause the same effect. Lazar says sun sensitivity could also increase for people taking medications, such as diuretics that lower high blood pressure or relieve bloating, or antibiotics like tetracycline.
Treat your burns and blisters right away. Once you’re pink or red, it’s time to pack up your beach towel and call it a day. Staying under the sun will worsen burns and cause itchiness, Lazar says. To treat burns, he recommends taking an anti-inflammatory medication like Aspirin. Then cool down the burn by applying an ice pack or soaking in a cool tub. To treat blisters, try greasy, Vaseline-based products that will hydrate, but not sting, your skin. If you’re starting to feel nauseous or have a headache after being in the sun, Lazar says you might have sun poisoning, which is a more exaggerated reaction to the sun than skin burns. “Treat yourself like you’ve got a flu bug,” he says, adding that you should stay in bed and avoid alcohol and the sun until you’re feeling better. If you have a high fever or continue to burn when outside, consult a physician.
Too much damage leads to skin conditions and cancer. There are a few cosmetic consequences tanners will start to see if they continue to overexpose their skin, Robinson says. “You get that dark mustache look, which is not attractive. No lady wants to have a mustache,” she says, referencing a skin condition known as melasma, which causes dark patches of pigment to form on the face. The condition is often triggered by hormones, so pregnant women or those taking birth control have a higher risk of developing the condition. Another risk is early wrinkle formation. Robinson says women who would normally start to see wrinkles in their 30s can get them in their 20s because of indoor and outdoor tanning.
While tanning builds damage over time, just one sunburn should be a wake-up call that it’s time to pay more attention to protecting your skin, Lazar says. With five or more blistering sunburns, your risk of melanoma skin cancer doubles, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Since skin cancer develops over years of sun exposure, Lazar emphasizes the importance of taking simple measures to protect your skin today to avoid severe consequences in the future.
“Unfortunately, the damage we get today from going out in the sun … the wrinkles, the precancers, the skin cancers take many years to come up, so we don’t always link them in our mind to the damage we did before,” Lazar says.