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Experts say that our skin may be more sensitive to sunlight after spending much of our time indoors during the pandemic. Kathrin Ziegler/Getty Images
  • Experts say that your skin may burn more easily in sunlight if you’ve spent a lot of time indoors during the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • They note that skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States.
  • They recommend using sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 before heading outdoors.

After a long time stuck inside during the COVID-19 pandemic, the weather is heating up, and the outdoors beckon.

But experts warn that after spending so much time indoors, your skin may burn more easily.

“While in general, individuals should always be concerned with exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation and burning, everyone should be especially careful now that they have spent so much time indoors,” Dr. Joseph Zahn, an assistant professor of dermatology at GW School of Medicine and Health Sciences in Washington, D.C., told Healthline. “The skin hasn’t had time to slowly adjust to the increase in ultraviolet light outdoors.”

Spending time outdoors is an efficient way to get vitamin D, but those who’ve spent more time than usual indoors may find that their skin is now more sensitive to sunlight and will need to take precautions.

Dr. Brittney K. DeClerck, pathologist and dermatologist at Keck Medicine of USC in California, agrees: “After spending time indoors for a prolonged time without consistent day-to-day sun exposure, the skin can burn somewhat quicker and be more sensitive. Significant sun exposure is never a good thing for the skin, but the skin will be more sensitive if it is not used to being in the sun.

“Wearing sunscreen and wearing clothing to block the sun are the two ways to be in direct sunlight while protecting oneself from the sun’s harmful UV rays,” DeClerck continued. “Clothing that is woven tightly, meaning you cannot see through it, or is rated with a high UPF (ultraviolet protection factor), is an ideal way to protect from the sun.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.

The majority of skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to UV light. UV rays come from the sun, tanning beds, and sunlamps.

UV rays can damage the skin all year round, not just in summer. In the United States, UV rays are strongest between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

The CDC advises using a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 15 before going outdoors. However, most recent estimates suggest that only 33 percent of U.S. adults use an SPF of 15 or higher always or most of the time to protect themselves from UV rays.

“There are two types of sunscreens, physical and chemical,” Zahn said. “Physical sunscreens work by reflecting ultraviolet light, much like a mirror. Chemical sunscreens, instead of reflecting the light away, absorb the light to prevent it from damaging your skin. A mineral sunscreen is another name for a physical sunscreen, as the two commonly seen ingredients in this category are minerals, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These ingredients reflect ultraviolet light.”

Regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) require sunscreens in the United States to have an expiration date unless testing proves the sunscreen will be stable for 3 years. The FDA advises checking the expiration date of sunscreen before use. If one isn’t listed, throw it out if it was purchased more than 3 years ago.

DeClerck says that everyone should be protecting themselves from the sun regardless of their skin tone.

“In my opinion, the biggest myth about skin cancer is that people with darker skin tones are not at risk for getting skin cancer. No matter what color skin a person has, they can develop skin cancer,” she explained.

“I recommend a sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection that is SPF 30 or higher and is water-resistant for 80 minutes. As long as the sunscreen fulfills these requirements, it will provide good protection. These attributes will be sufficient until it is time to reapply in 2 hours or after swimming,” DeClerck added.