June 10, 2014 Healthy Living

Summer Fun Series: Protecting Your Skin from the Sun

After an especially long, cold winter, you may be thrilled to finally be able to enjoy warm weather and sunny days. However, make sure that as you celebrate summer and have fun in the sun, you’re also protecting your skin.

Although you might think that it looks nice to have “glowing” skin, a tan is your skin’s response to damage from the sun. Excessive sun exposure can make you look prematurely aged. It also puts you at much higher risk for skin cancer.

Facts about skin cancer

Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer and accounts for nearly half of the cancers in the United States. In 2014, more than 76,000 cases of melanoma, the most serious of the skin cancers, will be diagnosed in this country.

Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are not melanoma. Unlike melanoma, they start in the cells that are at the base of the outer layer of the skin. They can either be fast-growing or slow, but they don’t generally spread to other parts of the body. Usually, these cell cancers appear on sun-exposed areas like the face, ears, neck, lips and backs of hands.

Melanoma, the more serious form of skin cancer, is almost always curable if caught early. However, it is more aggressive than other skin cancers and is the cause of most skin cancer deaths. Melanoma usually occurs on the skin, but it can also begin in the eyes, mouth, genital and anal regions. Approximately 84% of melanoma diagnoses are made in the early, localized stage and the overall five-year survival rate is 91%.

Skin cancer risk factors

As with other cancers, there are some risk factors for skin cancer that you can control and others that you cannot. The key to protecting yourself is knowledge of your risk factors and watching your skin closely for any changes that could be indications of a cancerous condition.

Traits that make you at higher risk for skin cancer include: having pale skin that burns easily and doesn’t tan, along with natural red or blond hair; a previous incidence of skin cancer (or family history of skin cancer); multiple or unusual moles; and having had severe sunburns in the past.

The most important risk factor that is within your control is your exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation, which occurs from either natural sunlight or tanning booths or lamps. Unprotected or excessive exposure to UV rays is highly damaging to your skin and greatly increases your skin cancer risk. Also, workplace exposure to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds, or radium can also increase your risk. If you work in a profession where you might be exposed to any of these elements, consult your physician for advice on how to best protect your skin.

Protecting your skin from the sun

You can reduce your skin cancer risk by taking precautions while outdoors in the sun. Here are some tips for sun safety:

  • The sun is strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; avoid direct sun exposure during these hours. If you’re outside during these hours, be sure to seek out shady spots.
  • Protective clothing: Cover as much skin as possible when out in the sun. The most sun-protective clothes are those that have tightly-woven fabric that you can’t see through when held up to light.
  • Sunscreen: Sunscreen and lip balm should contain broad spectrum protection and sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Use water-resistant sunscreen liberally – approximately a handful should be applied to skin 30 minutes before heading outside and every two hours during outdoor time. Reapply sunscreen more frequently if you’re swimming (and toweling dry) or sweating.

There are some common areas that people forget to cover with sunscreen: lips, ears, around eyes, neck, hands, feet and scalp.

  • Hats: Wear a hat with a wide-enough brim to cover your face, ears, and neck. If you’re wearing a baseball cap, be sure to put sunscreen on your ears and neck.
  • Sunglasses: Wear sunglasses with 100% UVA and UVB absorption.

Remember that even if it is cloudy or hazy outside, your skin can still be affected by UV rays. Continue to use sunscreen even if it is overcast. Tanning booths and beds are inherently unsafe with respect to skin cancer. Getting a tan, whether naturally or artificially, is never healthy.

Protect your skin, even in the car

Planning to hit the road for an eagerly-anticipated summer vacation? The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology recently published information that said that there has been an increase in skin cancer on the left side of the body, which the researchers attribute to exposure from being in the drivers’ seat in the car.

Most windshields are treated to partially filter UVA rays, but side and rear windows are not. Therefore, 63% of the sun’s UVA radiation can enter through the side windows. There are clear window films that can be installed on the side windows for sun protection that does not reduce visibility, but you also should wear a UVA-protectant sunscreen just as you would outside, or wear protective clothing as you ride in the car. If you ride in a convertible or a car with a sunroof, either keep the top closed or wear a hat as you travel so that the sun isn’t burning your scalp and neck. Men with thinning hair should be especially mindful of wearing a hat when driving in a car with roof exposure.

Your kids’ skin

Kids have the same melanoma risk factors as do adults, and most people get the majority of their lifetime sun exposure before age 18. Infants have thinner skin and underdeveloped melanin, so their skin will burn more easily than older kids’ skin. Still, it is not recommended to use sunscreen on babies under six months old, so they should be kept out of the sun as much as possible.

If you’re planning fun outdoor activities with kids, consider bringing along a small pop-up tent or umbrella to provide instant shade if there is no shade available. Also, when applying sunscreen to a little girl, lift up bathing suit straps and rub sunscreen underneath them so that all of her skin is protected when the straps inevitably move as she plays. Better yet, purchase bathing suits (for both boys and girls) that include t-shirt-style tops for complete coverage of shoulders and backs.


References: American Cancer Society, Skin Cancer Foundation, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


Erin Blakesley
About the Author

Erin joined CDPHP in 2008 as a health promotion coordinator in the population health and wellness department. She assists employer groups with offering health and wellness programs for their employees and is instrumental in planning numerous community events. In addition, Erin helps develop the free wellness class schedule for CDPHP members. A nurse with experience in fitness training, Erin is excited to educate the community about the importance of health and wellness.

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