Not too many years ago, it was considered the summertime norm to lie in the sun for hours, getting as tan as possible. Today we know that’s flirting with skin cancer. But while most of us have changed our sunning habits at least a bit, the disease remains a threat. Take three sensible steps to protect your skin and avoid cancer.
Know the dangers. It’s not just a bad burn that poses a hazard—it’s tanning too. The bottom line is, the more sun you get, the worse it is for you. That said, a burn is more dangerous than a tan, and a burn in childhood or adolescence increases your skin cancer risk more than a burn later on. Skin cancer plays favorites too. Generally, the fairer-skinned you are, the higher the danger you face, and having naturally blond hair means you’re at two to four times the average risk of melanoma, the most serious kind of skin cancer. You’re also at greater risk if a family member has been diagnosed with skin cancer.
While tanning booths are sometimes touted as a safe alternative to sunning, beware. Several studies have shown that people who go regularly to tanning booths had a 75 percent greater-than-average likelihood of developing melanoma before age 35. And though it’s true that sunlight, real or artificial, provides vitamin D, most of us get enough vitamin D just from casual exposure to sunshine.
Use protection. The lotions and sprays sold for use against sunburn filter out ultraviolet B rays, sunlight’s principal cancer-causing agent. It’s best to apply them 20 to 25 minutes before you go into the sun. And reapply thoroughly every two hours—more often if you go swimming—because the moisture from perspiration or immersion reduces sunscreen’s effectiveness. If you select a sunscreen that combats ultraviolet A rays as well as B, you’ll be protected not only from skin cancer but from the wrinkling and drying that cause skin to age prematurely.
Sunscreen products must follow new labeling requirements set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Visit http://www.fda.gov/ and click on the section “For Consumers and Patients” to find more information. Then type “sunscreen” in the search field to read the latest information about the new requirements. The labeling changes, which include providing information about protection against UVA and UVB rays, are being required so that sunscreens meet standards for safety and effectiveness based on the latest scientific research.
Check your skin. Melanoma, the most dangerous kind of skin cancer, accounts for just four percent of cases, but 79 percent of skin-cancer deaths—it claims some 7,800 lives in the U.S. each year. But because melanoma is on the skin, you can see it develop almost from the beginning—if you can recognize it—so there’s a better chance for early intervention and a cure than with many cancers. That’s why your skin is an important part of your regular physical exam with your doctor. And between exams, be vigilant, watching for any change in a mole or growth. For an easy-to-remember guide, think “ABCDE.” If a mole changes in asymmetry, border, color or diameter, or if it evolves, show it to your doctor or a dermatologist promptly.
Enjoy the rest of the summer!
Courtesy of Jeremy Rothfleisch, M.D., a dermatologist affiliated with Saint Peter’s University Hospital, who insists that his family wears shirts and uses an SPF (Sun Protection Factor) 70 to 85 sunblock when they go to the beach. To find a doctor affiliated with Saint Peter’s, visit saintpetershcs.com/findaphysician.