UV Safety Month โ€“ Protect yourself against the dangers of UV radiation

  • Published
  • By Hailey Bangerezako
  • Walter Reed National Military Medical Center

July is UV Safety Month, a critical time to understand how to protect yourself and your loved ones from the potential long-term effects of ultraviolet, or UV, rays.

UV radiation is a form of electromagnetic radiation that can affect the cells in your body. It comes from both natural sources, such as sunlight, and man-made sources, including the sunlamps found in tanning booths.

While it’s nearly impossible to completely avoid exposure to UV rays, there are strategies to minimize daily UV exposure and mitigate potential dangers, including sunburns, skin cancer, skin aging, and even snow blindness (a sunburn to your cornea that causes a temporary loss of vision).

The Murtha Cancer Center at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center hosted its annual skin cancer summit in May. The MCC is the only Department of Defense Cancer Center of Excellence. During the summit, retired Army Col. (Dr.) Craig Shriver, director of the MCC and MCC Research Programs, explained that nonmelanoma skin cancer is the number two incidence of cancer in active-duty service members, [and] melanoma is also one of the most common cancers in active-duty service members.

Those who have served in uniform are at a greater risk of developing skin cancer than those who have not, according to military physicians. A number of military occupations require service members to work outdoors and in environments with greater exposure to the sun.

Although people with specific characteristics are at greater risk for skin cancer (including those with lighter skin; blue or green eyes; blond or red hair; a family history of skin cancer; skin that easily burns, freckles or reddens; or those with a large number of moles), anyone can get skin cancer.

Providers recommend a number of measures people should take to help protect themselves against the sun’s harmful UV rays including:

• Use sunscreen and sun-protective clothing. If you plan on spending time outdoors, ensure you are prioritizing sun protection. Use a sunscreen that is water-resistant and contains an SPF of 30 or higher. Remember to reapply it every two hours and take breaks in the shade. Wearing sun-protective clothing, such as hats, and long-sleeved shirts, can also help limit your exposure to UV rays.

• Wear sunglasses. Sunglasses are not only a stylish fashion statement, but they are also vital tools to assist in protecting your eyes from UV radiation. They limit the amount of exposure your eyes get from the sun, preventing excessive eye strain and promoting visual health. Additionally, they protect the sensitive skin around your eyes from potential sun damage.

• Avoid tanning beds. While tanning might seem fun, the UV lights in tanning beds expose your skin to excessive UV rays. To reduce your risk of skin damage, it is recommended to avoid tanning beds altogether.

• Monitor the UV Index. The UV index indicates the strength of UV rays during the day and helps you determine when to take extra precautions. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency:

-- A UV index of 1-2 indicates that low protection is needed.

-- A UV index of 3-7 indicates moderate to high protection is needed, typically from late morning to mid-afternoon.

-- A UV index of 8 and above indicates very high to extreme protection is needed. During these times, seek shade and take all necessary precautions to limit UV exposure.

• Keep an eye on moles. Dermatologists at Walter Reed explain that a change in the skin is the most common sign of skin cancer, including a new growth, a sore that doesn't heal, or a change in a mole. They recommend monthly self-exams and annual professional skin exams by a dermatologist. They also encourage people to remember the A-B-C-D-Es for warning signs. These include:

A: Asymmetrical: Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different?

B: Border: Is the border irregular or jagged?

C: Color: Is the color uneven?

D: Diameter: Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea?

E: Evolving: Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months?

• Military. Service members whose mission requires them to be outdoors or work with certain UV lights need to prioritize their health. Avoiding harmful UV rays is crucial, especially for military personnel who spend extended hours outdoors. Proper skin and eye protection is not just a health measure, it is mission essential. Shriver explained that a Pentagon directive has tasked the MCC with tackling cancer as a readiness issue, explaining that a diagnosis of cancer can take a service member away from their unit and out of the fight for treatment for possibly months or longer.