It’s time to say adieu to the cold weather and welcome the warmer days and rejuvenating effects of the sun. But as many of us strive for a healthy glow or work or play outdoors, we need to be aware of the serious health risks that can develop from our exposure to the sun (and tanning booths)—and, too, to take preventive measures to protect ourselves and our loved ones.
According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer is “one of the most preventable forms of cancer.” Research shows that 95 to 99 percent of cases are related to sun exposure and tanning beds. Thus, proper protection from the sun and avoidance of tanning beds are significant steps we can take to prevent it.
And, while many cases are readily treated, skin cancer does kill. In fact, every hour, one American dies from it. It is also the most common form of cancer, with nearly 5.5 million cases diagnosed yearly in the United States.
HOW DOES THE SUN CAUSE SKIN CANCER?
The sun’s ultraviolet radiation — comprised of ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays—can penetrate our skin and damage our cells and DNA. Our DNA, or genes, contain our cell’s blueprint. It tells our cells what to do, including when to grow or not to grow. In some cases, the sun’s damage results in uncontrolled cell growth, or skin cancer. These cancerous cells then have the ability to invade deeper layers of skin or metastasize (spread to other parts of the body).
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF SKIN CANCER?
—Squamous cell cancer — Their normal function is as the outer, barrier layer of the skin and when cancerous, often appears as a scaly patch, a lump, or an ulcer.
—Basal cell cancer — These cells are normally responsible for producing new skin cells when old ones die or are injured. This form of cancer typically looks like a white waxy lump or brown scaly patch.
—Melanoma — We have pigment-producing cells that are responsible for the color of our skin tone. When cancerous, it often appears as an unusual growth or change in an existing mole.
WHEN ARE THE SUN’S ULTRAVIOLET (UV) RAYS THE STRONGEST?
Generally speaking, between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. One clever tip from experts is to coordinate sun exposure with our shadow. What this means is that if our shadow is shorter than us, the sun is directly overhead and its ultraviolet rays are strong. So, whenever possible, schedule outdoor activities outside of those times.
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS TO PROTECT AGAINST THESE HARMFUL RAYS?
—Clothing protects us by absorbing or blocking much of the damaging ultraviolet radiation. Thus, the more skin you can reasonably cover, the better your protection. And, too, materials that have a tight knit or weave are able to block out more UV rays. Not certain how to determine this? Don’t worry, it is easy. Just place your hand between the fabric and a lamp. If we can see your hand through the clothing, it means that ultraviolet light will be able to pass through it.
—Hats, particularly wide-brimmed ones, can block our oh-so-vulnerable ears, nose, and neck. Although baseball caps offer protection for the nose, they do not provide protection for the ears and neck.
—Sunglasses can prevent ultraviolet radiation from damaging our precious eyes and vision. Look for glasses that can block 100 percent of UV rays.
—Seek out the shade whenever possible — under a tree or umbrella, for instance — but beware that ultraviolet rays can reflect off of dry sand or concrete
—Sunblock protects against the harmful effects of radiation.
WHAT SHOULD I LOOK FOR WHEN CHOOSING A SUNBLOCK/SUNSCREEN?
This can be challenging and requires some homework on our part. First start by selecting a “broad spectrum” product — this means it will protect our skin from both ultraviolet-A (UVA) and ultraviolet-B (UVB) light.
Next look at the sun protection factor (SPF). This number describes the sunscreen’s effectiveness against UVB light that is responsible for skin burns (and hence damage). A rating system for UVA light, which is responsible for skin aging, does not currently exist. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that an SPF of at least 30 should be chosen.
HOW SHOULD SUNBLOCK BE APPLIED?
Experts recommend that 1-2 ounces, equivalent to a shot glass, should be applied to the entire body 30 minutes before going outside. DON’T BE STINGY! If the layer of sunblock is too thin, it is unable to protect us. Make sure, also, to pay extra attention to the forehead, ears, nose, neck and shoulder.
And don’t forget to reapply. The protective effects of sunblock fade with time, and get washed away in the water or with sweating. If it’s not there, it cannot protect us. The time of day also can affect how often to reapply. Between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., ultraviolet rays are the strongest, even when it is cloudy. It may be necessary to reapply every hour!
HOW CAN I SCREEN FOR SKIN CANCER?
Experts recommend that we examine our skin from head-to-toe every month and see our physician if we notice any new or changing lesions. The Skin Cancer Foundation has an easy-to-understand self-examination guide on how to perform a step-by-step exam at www.skincancer.org.
ARE THERE SPECIAL RECOMMENDATIONS FOR OUR CHILDREN?
Babies under 6 months should never be exposed to direct sunlight. Use a stroller with a hood or canopy and cover their skin, including their arms and legs, with protective clothing. Pediatricians do not recommend using sunscreen or sunblock on babies.
And, too, our children should be taught to practice sun protection from an early age. A bad sunburn can double their risk of developing cancer down the road. We also know that children are like sponges and love to imitate—so make sure to be our children’s role model. If they see us protecting ourselves, it is more likely that they will, too!
Prevention is key when it comes to skin cancer. By making sure to avoid, protect against and block ultraviolet radiation, combined with performing monthly self-examinations, you will lower skin cancer risks. Remember the great majority of skin cancers can be prevented. Have fun in our warm, sunshiny days!
This article is for general information only and should not be used for the diagnosis or treatment of medical conditions and cannot substitute for the advice from your medical professional. Dr. Nina has used all reasonable care in compiling the current information but it may not apply to you and your symptoms. Always consult a doctor or other health care professional for diagnosis and treatment of medical conditions.