As summer approaches, we are spending more time outside. And with that comes more sun exposure.
If not managed properly, too much sun can have harmful health effects. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancers are the most common of all cancers with an estimated 5.4 million skin cancers diagnosed each year in the United States. Most skin cancers are caused by repeated and unprotected skin exposure to ultraviolet rays from sunlight or sources such as tanning beds.
As summer holidays draw in on Memorial Day weekend, the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention hopes to raise awareness for the importance of protecting skin from the sun with Don’t Fry Day, which is Friday, May 28.
How can you enjoy the outdoors while protecting your skin from the harmful effects of the sun?
Working @ Duke spoke with Duke Assistant Professor of Dermatology Meenal Kheterpal, who leads Duke Dermatology’s skin cancer research programs and sees patients at Duke South and Duke Lightner Dermatology in Wakefield, about sun risks and how to protect you and your loved ones.
What can the sun do to our skin?
In addition to the visible light we see, the sun emits two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation – Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) – which are absorbed by our skin. UVA radiation, which is also emitted from tanning beds, is the more harmful of the two.
Kheterpal said that while absorbing excessive amounts of both types of UV radiation damages skin cells, your body has ways to repair itself. An example of this is a tan, which is the result of your body making more melanin, a substance that adds darker pigment to the skin and protects cells from UV rays.
Occasionally, this repair process can result in mutations that turn into skin cancer. Kheterpal said the more you ask your skin to repair itself, the more chances you have of potentially cancer-causing mutations.
Although fair-skinned people are at higher risk of developing skin cancer, the American Cancer Society warns that people of all ethnicities can be affected by sun exposure.
“I tell people all the time to think of your skin as an empty bucket,” Kheterpal said. You fill it slowly every time you are exposed to the sun. If you are very honest, you will only get a small bucket. If you have dark skin, you have a bigger bucket. So, depending on which bucket you get and how often you fill it, at some point it will overflow and you run the risk of developing skin cancer. “
How can we protect our skin from the sun?
According to Kheterpal, the best approach to protecting your skin should include several measures. This includes seeking shade where possible through shelter, wide-brimmed hats or umbrellas; wear clothing that protects your skin and use sunscreen.
When it comes to clothing, Kheterpal recommends wearing comfortable clothes that cover as much of your skin as possible. While ballcaps can provide some protection, Kheterpal said that since they don’t cover your ears or the sides of your head, they’re not as effective as wide-brimmed hats.
And for skin that is not covered, sunscreen is a must. Kheterpal even recommends using a daily facial sunscreen, which often doesn’t contain ingredients that can clog pores, on your face and hands.
“You can get some level of ultraviolet A all year round,” said Kheterpal. “Even if the UV index is quite low, sun protection can help you look younger by preventing skin blemishes and wrinkles. So if it’s not for skin cancer, wear it for vanity. “
What should we look for in sunscreen?
What most people notice about their sunscreens in the SPF, or sun protection factor, which measures how much UV protection the product provides.
Kheterpal recommends using products with an SPF of at least 30. Products with a higher SPF are available, which may be more expensive and provide longer-lasting protection. But with most sunscreens that stay on the skin for up to about 80 minutes – or significantly less if you spend time in the water – simply reapplying sunscreen with a lower protection factor can be a smarter and just as effective alternative.
Kheterpal also points out that there are two types of sunscreen, those that use chemical reactions to filter UVA rays and others that use ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to create physical barriers on the skin to UVA and UVB rays. While both are effective, Kheterpal said the zinc oxide or titanium dioxide sunscreens are considered a better way to prevent skin damage and are considered the safer choice. These are also preferred for use with children.
Most brands offer multiple types of sunscreen, so it’s important to look for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide among the ingredients to make sure you’re getting the best protection.
And Kheterpal said spray sunscreens are effective, but are probably best used in conjunction with sunscreen.
“Overall, we think cream-based sunscreens stay on the skin a bit better,” said Kheterpal. “So my personal recommendation to patients is that your first application should always be a sunscreen cream and then if you want to use a spray to reapply, I’d rather you use the sunscreen every 90 minutes than no sunscreen.”
What should we do for children?
Children need special attention when it comes to skin safety. Skin damage builds up over your lifetime, so overexposure to the sun at a young age increases the risk of problems later in life.
That’s why Kheterpal recommends that children wear sun-protective clothing and stay in the shade whenever possible and that they wear sunscreen when outside. Sun protection is complicated for infants. The Food and Drug Administration recommends checking with your pediatrician before applying sunscreen and doing your best to keep them out of the sun.
Kheterpal also recommends that parents let their kids apply their own sunscreen when they are old enough to do so so they can make the routine a habit.
When should you visit a dermatologist?
Kheterpal said there is no one-size-fits-all approach for when you should see a dermatologist. If you have had skin cancer in the past, or if you have had any in your family, you should see a dermatologist regularly. Likewise, if you are a long-time smoker or have been overexposed to the sun or tanning beds, you should consider seeing a dermatologist for a checkup.
And regardless of your risk factors, dermatologists recommend examining your skin monthly. If you see moles, freckles, or spots that appear large, irregular, or changeable, it is wise to see a dermatologist checked.
“There are many benign things that can have these symptoms, but if you’ve never seen a dermatologist before, they can help you distinguish between benign things and something that needs more attention,” Kheterpal said.
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