The skinny on sun damage: Tips to protect your skin

Tuesday, April 12, 2011
A woman applies sunscreen. (Stock art)

After a winter's worth of protecting skin from the wind and cold, many people can't wait to shed the coats and long sleeves, put on the shorts and tank tops and start to work on their suntans. They do this despite warnings in recent years about the dangers of sun exposure and ultraviolet radiation.

Cape Girardeau dermatologist Dr. Charles Moon said many of his patients are getting the message about the hazards of recreational sun exposure. Unfortunately, they aren't taking the warnings seriously until damage has been done.

"Many of my patients who have had multiple skin cancers are finally getting it," Moon said. "They are starting to use sun protective measures such as hats, protective clothing and sunblock."

Moon estimates that half of his practice at Advanced Dermatology of Southeast Missouri is related to the prevention and treatment of skin cancer.

While many equate tanned skin to sex appeal, there is nothing sexy about the consequences of damaged skin, he said.

"I see very large amounts of skin cancers, some of which are horrific and disfiguring," Moon said.

Even worse, if a skin cancer metastasizes, or spreads to other parts of the body, the consequences can be deadly. Moon said melanoma, a particularly deadly form of skin cancer, is now the second-leading cause of cancer deaths among women age 20 to 40.

Moon and other authorities believe the increase in melanomas among young women is related to the popularity of tanning salons, which many have turned to as a "safe" way to get a tan. Moon said he is now seeing cancers on areas such as the breasts and buttocks that women wouldn't expose on the beach but will expose in a tanning salon.

One of the biggest misconceptions about suntans is that a base tan will somehow protect a person from developing skin cancer, Moon said.

"It may prevent sunburn in some cases," Moon said, "but it increases the likelihood of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers."

There is no known safe level of intentional sun exposure, Moon said, whether it be in the natural form or the artificial form from tanning salons. And those who work in the sun, such as farmers and construction workers, tend to have higher incidences of skin cancers than those who work indoors.

While the best prevention for skin cancer is to stay out of the sun, the proper use of sunblock products can help to prevent damaged skin. The key is not only what type of sunblock you use, but how often you use it, Moon said.

"The problem is most people don't apply sunscreen in a large enough amount or frequently enough," Moon said. Since water and perspiration can wash the sunscreen off the skin, those who are swimming or who are exerting themselves physically should reapply the sunblock periodically.

As far as what sunblock product to use, Moon recommends a product with an SPF of 30 or higher and that contains either zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

"The difference between SPF 30, 45, 60 and 100 is only a few percentage points of protection," Moon said. "The SPF rating is one of the least important issues regarding sunblock."

Products with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, on the other hand, offer extra protection because they not only stop UV rays from penetrating to the skin but they actually reflect sunlight, according to Moon. Furthermore, "they do not burn as much as chemical-based sunscreens."

For those who are determined to darken their skin a few shades this summer, Moon believes that spray-on tanning products are an option.

"I would encourage patients to use these over intentional sun exposure, whether artificial from a tanning bed or from the sun," he said.

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