This summer has seen record-breaking temperatures consume much of the country, making sun safety an even more important precaution than ever before.
The sun’s harmful rays can cause a myriad of issues, including heat stroke, sun poisoning, sunburns and even skin cancer. Due to climate change, this isn’t the same sun many people stayed under until the street lights came on. Its intensity has the potential to cause harm to those who have never experienced sun safety issues, including people with more melanin than others.
Blavity sat down with Dr. C. Nicole Swiner, a Durham, N.C. family physician, six-time best-selling author and blogger, to discuss ways to beat the summer heatwaves.
1. Avoid being outdoors during the midday
Dr. Swiner said that while you might love the sun and enjoy sun worshipping, there is an ideal time of day to do so, and it’s not midday.
“I love the summertime and the sunshine and the vitamin D that we’re getting from the sun, but clearly, try to avoid the time of day when the sun is the most present and the hottest, that’s usually midday,” she told Blavity. “Noon to 3 p.m. tends to be the time when the sun is the highest in the sky and beaming the most UV Ray. Try to avoid doing things outside for an expanded amount of time during those hours, it makes a difference just with the heat itself.”
2. The more clothing, the better
Interestingly enough, Dr. Swiner said that if you intend to be out during midday, you should plan to wear more clothing than less.
“If you are going be out during those times when the sun is out and really, really high and hot, then the more clothing, the better,” she said. “We think that wearing hoochie daddy shorts and all of that, keeping it in the tank tops and having your skin exposed actually keeps you cooler, but it doesn’t because that’s actually how you absorb all the heat from the sun.”
She said that long sleeves and pants will keep you cooler because you will lose a lot less water.
“You’ll sweat less and have less skin exposed to the actual sun in the heat. So if you’re going to be doing things like cutting the grass or you’re going to be out watching the kids at the pool, if you’re not actively getting into the water, then shading yourself or keeping your skin less exposed is best.”
The fabric also matters.
“You still want the clothing to be breathable, so I wouldn’t wear your wool out there, but your linens and your cottons, anything that allows air to breathe and wind to flow easily is always good,” she said. “And let’s not forget covering your head, because it’ll shade you away from those UV rays and the sun. And it’ll protect your face from sun damage, wrinkles and skin cancer. So you want to keep the beautiful sun hat or nice baseball cap to shade you from that.”
3. Hydration, hydration, hydration
Drinking water is essential in general; however, it’s even more important to consume lots of water in the summer months, especially if you will be outside.
“Hydration is key because not only are we all supposed to be drinking a certain amount of water every day, but particularly when it’s crazy hot like it is now triple digits because you lose water,” Swiner said. “When you sweat, as you’re moving and walking and talking and doing your thing during the day, you’re going to lose fluids. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a sweater, that’s literally how your body tries to keep you cool, by eliminating fluids onto the skin.”
She said that you need to ensure you are replenishing the water in your body.
“Make sure that you’re getting at least 48 ounces, if not more of just pure water — so not Gatorade, not Pedialyte, pure H20,” she said. “So, you have nothing in the way of getting that good water absorption for your organs and to keep your skin cool. The more you sweat, the more water you’ll need. If you feel like you had an excessive amount of sweating or you’re feeling significantly dehydrated, there are IV services available that you can go to or they can bring it to you, and stick you and get you tanked up.”
4. Wear sunscreen even if you don't burn
According to NASA researchers, the amount of UV radiation coming from the sun has experienced a significant increase over the last 30 years. This means that people who have traditionally not experienced issues with sunburn or other heat-related ailments may start experiencing these things at a higher level than in the past.
“Black people can get skin cancer,” Swiner said. “We do get skin cancer, we get sunburn, and the more burn and sun damage you have, the more at risk you are for those long-term complications.”
Swiner said that everyone needs to wear sunscreen, no matter their skin tone.
“We have to wear sunscreen period,” she said. “All of us — it doesn’t matter what skin tone, it almost doesn’t matter how long you’re going to be out there.”
Once you’ve experienced peeling of the skin or a burning sensation, Swiner warns that sun damage has already occurred.
In choosing a sunscreen, you want to pick a cream over a spray and get the highest SPF available.
“The rub-on creams, which are probably more frustrating and messier, are better than the sprays because when we spray, we’re usually just kind of quickly spraying on the body and going and not really rubbing it in,” she said.
5. Drug use, prescription or otherwise, can cause heat-related concerns
Whether you’re taking a prescription, partaking in illegal substances or having a drink, you need to be mindful of sun interactions.
“I think any type of illegal or even some of our prescription drugs like blood pressure medicine, that’s a water pill or a diuretic, are going to dehydrate you,” Swiner said. “Or if you’re on a beta blocker that drops your pulse down, it’s already going to make things easier for you to feel dizzy and lightheaded if you’re not really taking in fluids. But, alcohol in particular definitely dries you out and may also put you in the state of mind where you forget to drink water.”
Swiner said if you plan to drink alcohol, ensure you are taking in equal parts water.
“If you know you are going to partake in alcohol, then you want to double up on those fluids — you want to alternate, you know, you have a beer and then water and then a drink and then water. You want to be smart about it.”
6. Understand the signs and symptoms of heat stroke and sun poisoning
Heat stroke is a very severe condition related to dehydration. To keep yourself safe from it, you must understand the signs and symptoms.
“The cardinal symptom is confusion,” Swiner said. “So, not only do you feel dry, have a dry mouth and a lack of sweating — like you’ve sweat to the point where you’re not sweating anymore, or you’re not urinating as often as you normally would, but headaches and confusion as well. When it seems to have hit the brain, that’s definitely an alarm going off to let you know that you need active hydration and you need to seek care.”
Feelings of confusion, disorientation, dizziness and passing out are key symptoms of heat stroke and signs that you need urgent care.
Another severe sun-related health issue is sun poisoning.
“Sun poisoning is similar to heat stroke, but it’s probably a little bit broader because while it involves similar symptoms, it also includes the involvement of the skin,” Swiner said. “So you get a sunburn, but it’s like times a hundred — it’s sunburn over multiple parts of the body, redness, blistering and then the systemic symptoms occur.”
Sun poisoning also involves neurological symptoms like headache, dizziness and disorientation.
7. The more sun, the more Black will crack
Swiner said while sun exposure might brighten your mood, you do need to be mindful of how you interact with it.
“The more sun, the more Black will crack, and it can crack,” she said. “You definitely want to minimize how long you’re sitting in the sun. I would rather you take five to 10 minutes at a time and take a break in the shade than being out for an hour or two without any protection.”
She explained that lasting sun exposure breaks down collagen and that’s what’s responsible for cracks, wrinkles and crow’s feet.
“The more that those layers are broken down, the more that the underlays of the skin are exposed and can become malignant things. Moles can turn into malignant moles, or even if you don’t have any previous skin history or issues, you can have that become an issue. Whether it be squamous cell or melanoma or basal cell, there are a lot of different things that particularly happen along the bridge of the nose and on the cheeks where we usually get the most sun exposure that can be made worse by the sun.”
It is true that the fairer your skin is, the more damage the sun can do to it, but that doesn’t mean darker skin tones are safe from sun damage.
“I will say the lighter tone you are, the higher risk you are for skin damage and skin conditions. But no matter what tone you are, even if you are of a deeper skin tone, you definitely still need to protect yourself because we all are at risk.”
No matter your past beliefs about sun exposure, climate change has altered the way people are experiencing sun damage. If you have personal questions about sun-related concerns, you should discuss them with your doctor.