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For Your Health: Being sun-safe when getting back outside


For Your Health Graphic 2020

Dr. Graham Colditz Headshot
Dr. Graham Colditz

With the warm summer months finally here, and stay-at-home restrictions starting to ease, many of us are enjoying the chance to get outside more often. The fresh air alone can feel wonderful after many weeks of being holed up in our homes for longer than many of us imagined we’d be. Add in the physical activity and opportunity to just add something new to our days, and it can provide a real physical and mental boost.

Of course, in our excitement to get outside, it’s important not to forget the physical distancing and other coronavirus safety measures that have helped keep infections in check in many parts of the country. Another step that will help keep you and your family healthy when heading outdoors after so much time inside: protecting yourself from the sun.

This can feel like a small thing in the face of a pandemic, but we shouldn’t neglect our overall health even while working to curb the spread of the coronavirus. And sun safety is no exception. More than three million people in the U.S. each year are diagnosed with skin cancer caused primarily by exposure to sunlight and other ultraviolet light, including about 100,000 with deadly melanoma. And even less-serious skin cancers can require treatment that leaves scars and impacts quality of life.

Steps that help protect against skin damage from the sun will no doubt sound familiar: use sunscreen, find shade and wear sun-protective clothing, like hats and long-sleeved shirts. But, with this spring and summer unique in so many ways, it may be important to keep a few additional things in mind to help you and your family stay safe in the sun.

In a usual year, springtime provides us a slow transition to outdoor activities. By the time the long, sunny days of summer arrive, we’ve had a chance to build our sun-safety routines. This spring has been very different. After so much time spent sheltering in place, many of us are essentially skipping spring and heading outside straight into peak summer sun. So, try to be aware of this and take extra care. Think about all the things you’ll need. Find those hats and long-sleeved shirts, and make sure you have enough sunscreen, checking expiration dates for good measure.

Being in the shade is one of the best ways to protect yourself from the sun. But shade may be harder to come by this summer with physical distancing. Staying six feet apart from others can limit free space under shade trees or park pavilions. Also, some outdoor areas remain open only for exercise, meaning relaxing in the shade isn’t officially allowed. Plan accordingly. You may need to shorten your time outside, so you’re less exposed to direct sun, or you may need to get out early or late in the day, when the sun is low in the sky and less intense.

With daycare closed and most schools moving to remote instruction this spring, many families have had a lot of together time already this year. And that trend is likely to continue this summer as childcare, summer camps and other programs are canceled or offering reduced services. Heading outside with the family is a great way to help fill the day with antsy kids. At the same time, it’s important to be mindful of protecting them from the sun, particularly if they’re taking more trips outside than they might normally. Sun damage in youth plays an outsized role in skin cancer risk later in life. So, be sure to slather kids up with sunscreen, reapplying when needed, and having them wear sun-protective hats and clothes. And nearly as importantly, try to be a good sun-safe role model yourself.

While our daily lives are not back to where they were pre-coronavirus, the joy of getting outside during the summer months certainly helps things feel more normal. And with just a few easy steps, we can help make those outings as sun-safe as they are enjoyable.

It’s your health. Take control.

Dr. Graham A. Colditz, associate director of prevention and control at Siteman Cancer Center at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, is an internationally recognized leader in cancer prevention. As an epidemiologist and public health expert, he has a long-standing interest in the preventable causes of chronic disease. Colditz has a medical degree from The University of Queensland and a master’s and doctoral degrees in public health from Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.