I’m a doc — here’s what I want everyone to know about summer sun

Summertime, and the livin’ is easy. 

From beach getaways to outdoor barbecues, the summer months are prime time for spending days in the sun. But all those hours basking in the rays can spell disaster for your skin, if you’re not careful. 

We’re betting you’ve heard about sunscreen. And you probably know that you should wear it. Despite this, one in three Americans reports getting a sunburn every year. Sunburns are skin damage. And the more you’ve had, the higher your risk of developing skin cancer. 

But the good news? You don’t have to shun the sun. We spoke with Dr. Jennifer A. Stein, a dermatologist at NYU Langone, for some cool tips you can try that will help protect your skin all season long. 

Why is protecting your skin from the sun so important?

The blistering redness of a sunburn will peel and fade within a few days. The glow of a tan is temporary, too. But the effect is long lasting. A tan and sunburn are signs that the sun’s radiation has damaged DNA in skin cells. Sometimes that DNA damage gets repaired, and sometimes it doesn’t, setting the stage for skin cells to divide abnormally later on. 

It’s estimated that one in five of us will get skin cancer during our lifetime. That’s why it’s important to protect your skin from daily sun exposure by wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. Wear it even if it’s cloudy out. Reapply every two hours and after swimming and using a towel. Don’t wait until you feel hot. You can get a sunburn without even knowing it. 

We talk about sunscreen a lot, but are there other ways to protect your skin from the sun? 

Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays are strongest. If you’re heading to the beach, go earlier or later in the day. The beach will be cooler then, too. If you’re at a midday picnic, find a shady spot.

The best way to protect yourself from UV rays is to cover up. The more of your skin you cover, the less you have to depend on sunscreen for protection. Wear a hat with a broad brim to shade your face and a shirt that covers your shoulders, chest and upper back, which are places that often get direct sun. You can buy sun-protective shirts and other clothing with built-in SPF, but any fabric is better than nothing. It doesn’t have to be fancy.

Woman on the beach with a sunscreen sun shape on her shoulder
Wearing sunscreen daily, even when it’s cloudy outside, can help protect your skin and reduce your chances of getting a sunburn.

What are telltale signs of skin cancer? 

In general, look for moles or spots on your skin that don’t look like anything you’ve had before. Inspect your face, shoulders, the back of your hands, arms and legs. Those are places where basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinomas, two most common types of skin cancer, can show up. 

Melanoma most commonly occurs on areas of the skin area that are normally covered in clothing but get bursts of sun exposure, such as the back for men and the legs for women. In the summer months, when you’re more likely to be out in the sun, it’s especially important to cover up whenever possible and always wear sunscreen. 

Many dermatologists use the “ABCDE” criteria to check for melanoma, and I recommend patients using this as a tool for self-checks at home as well:

  • A: Asymmetrical. Half of the mole doesn’t mirror the shape of the other half.
  • B: Borders that are irregular rather than round. The edges are jagged, notched or blurred.
  • C: Uneven Color, including shades of tan, brown, black or blue.
  • D: Diameter — larger than a pencil eraser.
  • E: Evolution over time. Any mole that’s changing in color, shape or size. 

Any of the ABCDEs are reasons to see a dermatologist for a skin check. 

What is a skin check like?

Skin checks are straightforward and nothing to fear. In the dermatologist’s office, you’ll put on a gown and the doctor will look you over from head to toe at all areas of the skin. 

Even if you don’t have a suspicious-looking mole, be diligent about getting regular skin checks if you’re at increased risk for skin cancer. You could be higher risk if you: 

  • Have had any type of skin cancer
  • Have a family member who has skin cancer, especially melanoma
  • Sunburn easily or have had many sunburns
  • Have used tanning beds, as they produce man-made UV light
  • Have light skin, red hair, freckles or light eyes
  • Take medication that suppresses your immune system
  • Have many and/or funny-looking moles

Portrait of Dr. Jennifer A. Stein
Jennifer A. Stein, MD, Ph.D., is a professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and associate vice chair for the faculty group practice in the Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone. Andrew Neary

What happens if my dermatologist finds something concerning?

Most skin cancers are found early and can be treated with outpatient surgery. Some skin cancers are treated with Mohs surgery, which is performed by a specially trained dermatologist. It involves surgically removing thin layers of skin one stage at a time and checking each piece under a microscope until the margins are clear and no cancer remains. 

Another hot topic — pun intended: sunburn. What’s the best way to soothe a bad one?

Cool baths can be soothing, as can cold compresses, which you can make with a paper towel or washcloth soaked in cool milk. An over-the-counter pain reliever can also help. If you have a bad sunburn and start to feel sick, cold or develop a fever, or you feel confused, it’s a sign your body can’t regulate your body temperature, and you should seek medical attention. 

All year long, but especially in the summer, it’s vital to take care of your skin and prevent permanent sun damage.

Jennifer A. Stein, MD, Ph.D., is a professor in the Ronald O. Perelman Department of Dermatology at NYU Grossman School of Medicine and associate vice chair for the faculty group practice in the Department of Dermatology at NYU Langone. She specializes in early detection of melanoma and other skin cancers.

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