Most of us enjoy being outside in sunny weather. The sun provides a natural lift in spirits and needed Vitamin D. Swimming, gardening, jogging, hiking, and other physical outdoor activities keep us fit. But the sun also poses real danger. Beyond contributing to heat-related illnesses such as dehydration and heat stroke, the sun also emits powerful radiation in the form of ultraviolet (UV) rays. Often referred to as ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB), exposure to these emissions can cause sunburn, skin aging, and skin cancer. Exposure can also harm the eyes (contributing to cataracts) and the immune system (causing suppression).
The Environmental Protection Agency reports that skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States, strikes 3.5 million people each year. One type of skin cancer that excess sun exposure can cause is melanoma. It can be fatal if not detected and treated early enough. According to Tom Frieden, MD, MPH, director of the Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC), “Melanoma is one of the most common cancers among people ages 15-29 years.” Non-melanoma skin cancers, including basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, can also occur due to UV rays. A tanning bed or “indoor tanning” subjects the user to UV radiation and the same dangers as traditional outdoor tanning. Additionally, ocular melanoma has been linked with tanning bed use.
RNs should use the following precautions for their own health, safety, and wellness, and should also share them with their families, patients, and the community at large to safely enjoy the sun.
Use sunscreen. Sunscreens that protect skin from UVA and UVB rays are considered “broad spectrum.” Choose products with a broad spectrum sunscreen with at least a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15, keeping in mind that SPF of 30 or more is best. Apply sunscreen generously when outdoors, even on cloudy or overcast days. Remember that snow, water, and sand reflect the sun’s rays, so sun protection is still needed. Additional recommended sunscreen practices include reapplication of the product every 2 hours, after getting in water, and after a heavy sweat. Be careful to apply sunscreen wherever skin is exposed, including on the head where hair is thin, back of the neck, ears, and tops of ears. Ensure that the sunscreen has not reached its expiration date. It’s usually best not to use sunscreen on infants less than 6 months of age. Instead, keep the baby out of the sun and provide adequate skin cover.
Wear sunglasses. UV-blocking wraparound-style sunglasses are the most effective. Sunglasses should still be worn even when wearing UV protection contact lenses.
Avoid intentional sun tanning and tanning beds. There is no safe way to tan due to the UV rays from the sun or a tanning bed.
Wear protective clothing. Loose-fitting, long-sleeved clothing and hats with a wide brim all the way around the head offer effective protection.
Limit time in the sun. According to the CDC, the sun’s UV rays are strongest between 9 am to 3 pm in the lower 48 states, especially during late spring through early summer. Seeking natural and man-made shade, staying indoors, and/or use of an umbrella or parasol are some methods of defense against the sun. The National Weather Service calculates and posts the UV index daily by zip code. When this index number is extremely high, an alert may be issued and time spent in the sun should be kept to an absolute minimum.
Check your medication. Photosensitivity is a side effect of many medications, including specific antibiotics and psychiatric drugs. By increasing the patient’s sensitivity to light, the sun’s damaging effects will be even more potent.
As an ANA HealthyNurseTM, be a role model for the above safer sun actions. Your skin, eyes, and immune system will benefit, and as a bonus, you’ll also prevent premature wrinkles! More information and the daily UV index are available at http://www2.epa.gov/sunwise. Learn more about being a healthy role model for your patients at http://www.nursingworld.org/healthynurse.
Holly Carpenter is a senior staff specialist for ANA’s Department for Health, Safety, and Wellness.