Summer’s hidden health concern

Face mask? Check. Hand sanitiser? Check. Sunscreen? Hmm. If you’re busy worrying about how to avoid the coronavirus, you may not have thought much about your skin health. And you’re not alone. Many people say that they are so focused on handwashing and avoiding germs that they are not thinking about sunscreen application, according to a new survey conducted in the US.

This news is cause for concern, according to experts like Sherry Pagoto, PhD, a prevention researcher and clinical psychologist in the US who specialises in behavioural medicine. “While it’s understandable to let healthy habits slip temporarily in times of change, those slip-ups can have lasting effects,” she says.

One example: Researchers studying Danish exercisers found that taking a gym break for just one week was associated with a steady decline in gym attendance that lasted more than two months. “If this were to hold true for sunscreen use, it could spell trouble,” she says. “Declining rates of sunscreen use at a time of the year when the UV index is climbing by the day, combined with reductions in nonessential healthcare visits like skin exams and mole removals, could be the perfect storm for more skin cancers in the future.”

But it doesn’t have to be that way. Protecting your skin from the sun has been shown to reduce your risk of developing early skin aging and skin cancer, according to The American Academy of Dermatology. One way to safeguard yourself is by minimising your sun exposure, especially between the hours of 10am and 4pm, when the sun is at its strongest. But it can be hard to avoid the sun, even if you only spend time outdoors in short periods; multiple 20-minute walks or errands outside can quickly add up to an hour or more of sun exposure each day. That’s why it’s also important to wear protective clothing and use a sunscreen with a minimum SPF 30 and UVA and UVB broad-spectrum protection.

To make a habit of applying, Pagoto suggests making small changes to your environment and routine that will reinforce the behavior. Place a bottle next to your hand soap, so you’re reminded to reapply after you wash your hands. Or store your everyday essentials, like face masks, hand sanitiser and sunscreen, in a basket near the front door so you can’t miss them.

And don’t forget to read the directions for use on the label and reapply regularly. “I advise my patients to reapply sunscreen every two hours or anytime immediately after swimming or sweating,” says Board Certified dermatologist Dr. Bertha Baum. “Most people don’t use enough to begin with, so reapplication helps ensure that you’re getting full UVA and UVB protection from your sunscreen.” If you find yourself out and about sans sunscreen, you can’t necessarily count on borrowing someone else’s like you did in the past; people may be less likely to share because of concerns about spreading germs. A simple fix? Store an easy-to-reapply sunscreen stick in your bag.”

“The pandemic has thrown off just about every aspect of life, and it may take a little extra effort to get our healthy habits back on track,” says Pagoto. “But there’s never been a time when taking care of our health has been more important.”-BPT