With summer here, many of us are spending more time outdoors doing different activities like hanging at the pool or the beach, hiking, tanning or even just working out. While there are benefits to sun exposure, including increased vitamin D levels and it’s an effective way to combat insomnia as well as seasonal affective disorder, it also can be very dangerous— more so than the average person realizes. Here are some things you need to know to protect yourself this summer while still enjoying the great outdoors.

How Ultraviolet Rays Affect the Skin

The sun gives off two types of UV rays: UVA and UVB. Both types of UV rays can damage the skin’s cellular DNA and produce genetic mutations that can develop into skin cancer. Because tanning and outdoor activities are so popular, the incidence of skin cancer is more than all the other cancers combined.

Skin cancer is associated with chronic sun exposure. The most common type of skin cancer is basal cell cancer, which typically starts as a pimple that won’t go away. Squamous cell cancer is the second most common type of skin cancer and appears as a thick scaly area or bump that does not go away.

The most common form of skin cancer in ages 25 to 29 is melanoma, and risk factors for this deadly cancer increase when a person has a history of five or more sunburns, has used a tanning booth and has a lot of unusual moles. The bottom line is, if you notice an unusual mole that looks different from others you may have, get it checked out right away by a dermatologist, as early detection is key.

Many of us love sitting out in the sun for hours in the summer time in order to tan. The problem, though, is that experts agree that there is no such thing as a “safe tan.” Melanin is what causes the tan color change in your skin, and it is a sign that your skin is already damaged. In fact, skin produces melanin as an attempt to protect the skin from further damage, and it is the same pigment that colors your hair and your eyes.

Whether one chooses to tan outdoors or in a tanning bed, it can lead to premature aging, fine lines, wrinkles, age spots and cancer. Make sure you protect yourself during outdoor activities this summer.

Vitamin D and Obesity

Vitamin D strengthens the health of the brain, skin and bones, helps prevent certain cancers and can be made in the skin through UVB rays. In addition, vitamin D and obesity are linked. The more body fat you have, the more likely you are to have low vitamin D levels in the body. In one study, researchers gave obese and lean adults either 50,000 IU vitamin D2 (a typical pharmacologic dose) or exposed their whole bodies to UV light. In both groups, obesity was inversely correlated with vitamin D status, indicating that excess fat tissue affected both the body’s production and absorption of vitamin D. In fact, exposure to UV light caused an increase in vitamin D that was 57 percent lower in the obese versus the lean group.

In addition to obesity, there are other factors that contribute to low vitamin D levels: living in northern climates in the winter, spending little time outdoors in the sun or covering skin with clothing and darker skin pigment, and using sunblock (also, older adults cannot synthesize vitamin D as well).

However, these measures are also important to protect your skin, so what’s the best way to find a balance between skin protection and making sure you get enough vitamin D? It may be wiser to include foods in your diet that naturally contain vitamin D, such as salmon, mackerel, sardines and tuna, and foods that are fortified with vitamin D, such as milk, some yogurts, breakfast cereals, sports nutrition bars and protein powders.

Protecting Your Skin This Summer

Use Sunscreen Every Day. You should actually do this all year round, as even time spent in your car and running around doing errands can expose your skin to the sun’s damaging rays. A sunscreen with SPF 15 blocks about 94 percent of UVB rays, one with SPF 30 blocks about 97 percent of UVB rays. Reapply every two hours, or more frequently if you’ve been sweating or swimming. Unfortunately, There is no grading system for UVA, so look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to protect your skin from the entire UV spectrum.

Limit Outdoor Activities During Peak Hours
The peak daylight hours are between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. If you are outside during these hours, you should seek shade as much as possible.

Wear Protective Clothing
During outdoor activities, it’s a good idea to wear a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses and SPF clothing.

Don’t Use Tanning Beds
Most tanning beds have UVA rays only, which are deeply penetrating, cause permanent DNA damage to cells, cause the most collagen damage and wrinkles and can result in skin cancer. Plus, they produce no vitamin D. Opt for a spray tan instead.

The Bottom Line

It is impossible to avoid all UV exposure during your lifetime, no matter what precautions you take. And while there are some benefits to sun exposure, there are more risks. That’s why when you know you are going to be outdoors for a prolonged period that it’s essential you take care of your skin. Also, make sure you get an annual skin exam and check yourself frequently so you can take notice of anything that looks odd or different. And if you find something that you’re unsure about, schedule an appointment with a dermatologist right away. If found early, most skin cancers are treatable.