We’re seeing more teens diagnosed with skin cancer than ever before, so it’s essential to start protecting your skin from the sun at an early age.
— Dr. Michael S. Fisher, Atlanta Center For Dermatologic Diseases
Go ahead and pack the sunscreen for your summer vacation, but don’t think of it as all you need to combat the ravages of the sun. Sunscreen protects against squamous-cell cancers found on the outermost layers of the skin. Squamous-cell cancers, however, account for just 20 percent of the skin cancers diagnosed annually. You must use other measures to guard against the types of cancer that account for the remaining 80 percent of diagnoses each year.
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer at least once. Many people know using sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer and will use it if they expect to be exposed to the sun for any length of time.
Sunscreen helps block UVA rays (ultraviolet long-wave light) and UVB rays (ultraviolet short-wave light). UVA rays penetrate skin deeply and play a major role in the development of skin cancer. UVB rays will do the same, only over a longer amount of time. A lifetime of overexposure to both types of ultraviolet radiation can result in cell mutations anywhere in the body.
“Melanoma is one of the most challenging solid cancers to work with because it has such a high rate of mutation,” said Yardena Samuels, an investigator for the Cancer Genetics Branch of the National Human Genome Research Institute’s Division of Intramural Research in Bethesda, Maryland.
Developing an early habit of protecting your skin goes a long way toward prevention of the cumulative effect of sun exposure.
“We’re seeing more teens diagnosed with skin cancer than ever before, so it’s essential to start protecting your skin from the sun at an early age,” said Dr. Michael S. Fisher of the Atlanta Center for Dermatologic Diseases.
Sunscreen is one element of that early defense. Avoidance of tanning beds, he said, is another.
“If you frequent tanning beds before the age of 35,” he said, “you’re 70 times more likely to develop a melanoma.”
Skin Protection Pointers
Dr. Wendy Delaney of Cummings, Georgia-based Vickery Pediatrics offers these recommendations to keep your family safe from the sun:
1. Wear a hat and protective clothing. Look for clothes with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 30 or higher.
2. Cover all exposed body areas with sunscreen. Use SPF 30 or higher. Apply 30 minutes before going outside.
3. Reapply sunscreen every two hours after swimming or excessive sweating.
4. Keep newborns in the shade or a sheltered area when possible. Use sunscreen on all babies more than 6 months old.
5. Avoid the sun’s strongest rays between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
6. Always check the expiration date on your sunscreen.
7. Do not neglect protecting your ears, eyes, lips and nose.
8. UVA rays can penetrate clouds, fog and glass, so protect yourself even on rainy days or when in the car.
9. DO NOT BURN.
10. Avoiding tanning and UV tanning booths.
Sunscreens are made up of chemical and physical properties that form a fine layer of protection over the skin for a temporary period of time. No sunscreen can entirely block UVA and UVB rays from penetrating the skin. Likewise, no sunscreen is waterproof or sweat-proof.
The SPF (skin factor protection) determines how long you can stay in the sun before the UVB rays will cause your skin to turn red. A high SPF sunscreen with a factor of 50 will screen the sun’s rays 50 times longer than unprotected skin, providing protection for 98 percent of the rays.
The physical environment in which you are exposed to the sun is a significant factor.
“When you are on a reflective surface” — such as water, beach or concrete pavement — “you will get twice as much radiation exposure because the sun’s rays will hit your skin from above and below,” explained Dr. Wendy Delaney of Vickery Pediatrics in Cumming, Georgia.
Anything less than 100 percent protection leaves room for damage at the skin’s cellular level, and it’s just not possible for sunscreen to provide 100 percent protection.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued new mandates in the spring of 2011 to account for some of those claims. Starting in 2012, sunscreen products may no longer be marketed as “sunblocks,” sweat-proof or waterproof. The FDA has also re-emphasized its guidance that sunscreen should be used along with a total skin-protection routine that includes wearing hats and protective clothing.
Delaney said users should always wear sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. It should be applied 30 minutes before you go outside. Use a product that screens out both UVA and UVB rays, and reapply it at intervals specified in the directions on the label. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using an amount of sunscreen equal to the size of a golf ball to cover your body and face.
When selecting sun-protective clothing and hats, look for those with a specified UPF (ultraviolet protection factor). The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends clothing with a UPF of 30 or higher.
Finally, ease up on that summer dream of the perfect tan. Tans are actually a result of damage to the skin. Prolonged damage will make the skin more vulnerable to cancer. You may have to give up a little of that “golden glow” in exchange for longer good health.
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