Surviving the sun: Keys to summer skin protection

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

One of the great things about living in Southeast Missouri is the beautiful spring and summer weather and wide variety of outdoor activities to experience. Unfortunately, being outside leads to exposure to the sun that can damage the skin, causing wrinkles and potentially skin cancer. In fact, about 90 percent of all skin cancers are caused by sun exposure. New cases of the possibly deadly form of skin cancer called malignant melanoma are increasing in this country. Last year there were almost 70,000 new cases of malignant melanoma and 8,650 deaths from this cancer. However, there are things you can do to reduce your risk for this potentially deadly cancer and, at the same time, keep your skin younger looking and healthier. This column will focus on seven of the most important factors for decreasing your risk for cancer and protecting yourself while in the sun.

Respect the sun: Too much sun can cause skin cancer and other damage to the skin. As little as 30 minutes' exposure to the sun can lead to severe burns. Just because it is a cloudy or an overcast day does not mean you will not get burned. Harmful ultraviolet rays pass through clouds. Therefore, sun protection is not just for the beach. Studies show that most sun damage occurs from intermittent sun exposure during regular daily activities.

Limit sun exposure in the middle of the day: The sun is at its highest and strongest point between the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Australians have a saying, "Between 10 and 3, step under a tree." If you schedule your golf games, gardening, hiking and other outdoor activities earlier or later than these hours, you'll greatly decrease your sun exposure. Also, avoid using indoor sun lamps or tanning salons.

Cover up your skin: Wear clothing to protect as much skin as possible. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants or long skirts are the most protective. Although they may be warmer, dark colors provide more protection than light colors by preventing more ultraviolet rays from reaching your skin. Tightly woven fabrics provide greater protection than loosely woven fabrics. Covering your head is particularly important. Wear a hat with a 4-inch brim all around because it protects areas often exposed to the sun, such as the neck, ears, eyes, forehead, nose and scalp.

Use sunscreen: Protect yourself with a broad spectrum sunscreen that has a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of 15 or higher. The higher the SPF rating, the greater protection from the sun. Remember, no sunscreen provides complete sun protection for extended time periods. Sunscreen should be applied liberally about 30 minutes before going into the sun. Be sure to reapply it after swimming, toweling off, or any activity where you have perspired heavily. Toweling off will remove all sunscreens, even the water-resistant ones. Be sure to apply sunscreen all over your body. This includes some places you might not think of, such as the tops of your ears, the back of your neck, the part in your hair, your face and the tops of your feet. You may want to experiment with different brands and formulations other than the standard creams. Today it is possible to find sunscreen as powders, gels, sprays and sticks. The Skin Cancer Foundation has a list of recommended sunscreens, including specialty products that are hypoallergenic, at Always remember to apply sun block to your lips regularly.

Keep children younger than six months out of the sun: Sunscreens can irritate a young person's skin. In addition the skin of young children is particularly sensitive to sunlight and it burns easily. When outdoors with your newborn, make sure the child is in some sort of shade at all times. Remember that the eyes of newborns are also vulnerable to the sun. Protective clothing, hats and sunglasses are all recommended.

Remember your eyes: Your eyes are as susceptible to ultraviolet rays as your skin. To protect your eyes wear ultraviolet blocking sunglasses whenever you are outdoors. This will help reduce your risk of developing cataracts later in life. Make sure your sunglasses block ultraviolet rays. Some health experts predict the increase in skin cancers that is being found will soon be mirrored by a sharp increase in the incidence of cataracts.

Medications may make your skin more sensitive: Some medications, such as antibiotics, can increase your skin's sensitivity to the sun. Discuss the medicines you take with your doctor or pharmacist and ask them about extra precautions that should be taken when you are outdoors.

The bottom line: With careful preparation you can do a great deal to protect the skin of both your loved ones and yourself. At the same time as you keep your skin young and healthy-looking you can also greatly decrease your chances of developing cancer. If you have any questions about the health of your skin, seek help from a dermatologist. There are no guarantees that following these recommendations will keep your skin looking as beautiful as it did when you were a child, but it will increase your chances greatly.

Dr. Jeremy Barnes is a professor with the Department of Health, Human performance and Recreation at Southeast Missouri State University.


This story first appeared in the June issue of The Best Years. You can find the latest issue of TBY in the Southeast Missourian on the first Monday of each month.

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