Here comes the sun (eventually)
After weeks of false starts and freezing temperatures, warm spring sunshine finally arrived over the weekend. But before rushing out to enjoy the rays, health professionals say it's important to remember the one product Minnesotans likely haven't thought about in months -- sunscreen.
Even in our higher latitude climate, exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is dangerous, said Dr. Ryan Kelly, who practices family medicine at Mayo Clinic Health System in Red Wing.
"Exposure is affected by the distance from the sun, so areas on the equator receive a higher rate of ultraviolet light than other areas," he explained. "But it's still serious here, and can do damage to the skin and increase the risk of skin cancer significantly."
Prolonged exposure to UV radiation changes skin texture and can lead to skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. As many as 90 percent of melanoma cases -- the most dangerous form of skin cancer -- are caused by UV light.
Kelly said wearing sunscreen is recommended for all but the briefest exposure to sunlight, even on cloudy days or during dreary spring weather.
"There still is UV radiation that makes it through the clouds," Kelly said. "Most of the health organizations say they would like to see people to wear sunblock every day."
Sun exposure on a cloudy day is only reduced by around 30 percent, according to the Mayo Clinic, and reflection from snow and concrete in the winter months can increase that exposure.
And it does not take long for the sun to have an effect: UV rays can begin damaging skin cells in as little as 15 minutes, the CDC says.
There are plenty of reasons people give for not protecting themselves from the sun, but none are worth the increased risk of skin cancer, Kelly said.
Three of the most common excuses include:
It's all about that tan
With only a handful of months Minnesotans can comfortably partake in outdoor activities, there can be a sense of urgency to soak up as much sun as possible. But Kelly said tanning, either out in the sun or with a tanning bed, is one of the worst things someone can do to their skin.
"Sun tanning is kind of the bane of skin cancer experts," Kelly said. "The attraction of getting a tan causes people to compromise their health and to not wear the right protection."
He added that although wearing sunscreen may prevent someone from getting a bronze glow, it greatly reduces the risk of skin cancer.
"There's no other way to say it -- tanned skin is damaged skin," according to the CDC. Any change in skin color due to sun exposure is evidence of UV damage.
Kelly also dispelled the idea that getting a tan early in the summer will prevent a person getting burnt later in the season. "It doesn't protect you to any great extent," he said.
He also recommends people with naturally dark skin to take steps to reduce sun exposure.
"People with very dark skin pigment have a little less risk for skin cancer related to sun damage, but they don't have zero risk."
Reduced vitamin D
On the flip side of sun exposure, people who get very little sunlight are at risk of inadequate vitamin D production, according to the National Institutes of Health. Vitamin D deficiency can lead to brittle bones and osteoporosis.
"Vitamin D is a popular topic right now," Kelly said, adding that the exact impact of vitamin D deficiency is still being studied.
He said that while use of sunscreen can stymie the body's ability to naturally synthesize vitamin D when exposed to sunlight, the biggest culprits for deficiency in Minnesota are the long, dark winters.
"We have a lot of cold weather and a long period of time where people aren't going outside," he said.
Some sun exposure can be helpful for people with a vitamin D deficiency, but Kelly cautions that overexposure to sun in the summer won't make up for six months of winter.
To compensate for reduced sun exposure, Kelly said a lot of experts recommend Minnesotans take supplements or get vitamin D through dietary choices.
Although vitamin D is relatively rare in food -- it is found most abundantly in fatty fish like tuna and salmon -- several products like milk and orange juice are fortified with it in the U.S., according to the Institutes of Health.
Too much hassle
Lathering on the sunscreen just to step outside for a couple hours can certainly feel excessive, especially for someone in a hurry.
But Kelly said that as an alternative to daily sunscreen, there are a few easy tactics to help avoid sun exposure, such as wearing longer clothing and staying in the shade during peak hours.
"I have certainly known adults who wear long sleeves, long pants and a big hat with a wide brim when they're outside -- and that can be helpful," he said. "But you just have to make sure it actually covers and shades."
Using clothing and shade is especially important for small children or infants who are too young for sunscreen, Kelly said.
Simply avoiding the sun at certain times can also go a long way to reducing UV damage. The most hazardous time for sun exposure in North America is between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during the late spring and early summer months, according to the CDC.
Taking steps to avoid overexposure to UV radiation, like many inconveniences, becomes more natural the longer a person does it, Kelly said.
"It's a bit of a hassle to put sunscreen on and to remember to do all that," Kelly admitted. "But I think once it's a habit that people establish, it's easier to do.