By Andy Dean, PA-C –
Well, we’ve made it through another brutal winter and spring is right around the corner (at least according to the calendar!). Naturally, after being cooped up indoors all winter, most people (including us dermatology providers) will venture outdoors in search of fun things to do. As dermatology professionals, we want you to enjoy all your favorite outdoor activities. However, we also want you to protect your body’s largest organ — your skin.
With April being National Cancer Control Month, as well as the start of spring, this seems a good time to review the harmful effects of ultraviolet (UV) rays and the measures you can take to prevent damage and minimize your risk of skin cancer, and also to address a few myths about sun protection and sunscreens.
What’s So Harmful about UV Light?
When your skin is exposed to UV, tiny light particles are absorbed into the DNA of your skin cells. This can cause DNA — the “recipe” for all your body’s cells — to become damaged and altered. And when DNA is altered, this changes the “recipe,” so the cells grow abnormally. That leads to tumors, many of which can be cancerous. Both types of UV light, UVA and UVB, have been linked to skin cancer.
The good news is that this damage is very preventable. Minimizing your exposure to UV rays is a key part of protecting your skin. This doesn’t necessarily mean staying indoors all day; staying in shady areas outdoors where the sun’s rays aren’t as intense is very helpful. The sun’s rays are most direct between about 10 am and 4 pm; care should be taken if you are out during these hours. Clothing can be very protective as well — long sleeves provide a physical barrier for your skin, particularly if the fabric is tightly woven and a dark color. Wide-brimmed hats provide physical protection and shade is also highly recommended.
Sunscreens are Crucial
And of course, sunscreens are crucial to protecting your skin — not just from skin cancer, but from wrinkles and leathery skin associated with aging. We recommend using a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher, and re-applying it every two to three hours. It’s best to apply it about 30 minutes before you go outdoors. The sunscreen also needs to be “broad spectrum,” meaning it protects against both UVA and UVB rays. There has been some concern raised as to whether chemicals contained in sunscreen may pose health risks of their own. The position of the American Academy of Dermatology and the Skin Cancer Foundation is that no published studies have ever found that sunscreen ingredients can be absorbed into your body in amounts enough to cause health problems. However, we DO know for sure that UVA and UVB light cause skin cancer, and that sunscreens are effective for reducing your risk. Sunscreens are a must when you’re outdoors — and don’t be stingy with them!
Supplement with Vitamin D
It’s true that your body makes Vitamin D from sunlight, but don’t let this keep you from wearing sunscreen. A Vitamin D supplement is a much safer way to meet the daily requirement. We also suggest foods high in Vitamin D such as fatty fish, or Vitamin D-fortified foods such as cereal and dairy products.
It’s also true that your body produces pigment cells in an effort to protect itself against sun damage (hence the tan). But please don’t be fooled into thinking that a “base tan” offers you extra protection. Any tan is a sign your skin has been damaged, and may actually be less able to protect against further damage. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s true: there’s no such thing as a safe tan — unless it’s a spray tan. And of course, it’s well established now that tanning beds can and do increase your risk of melanoma. It’s true that UV light does treat certain skin conditions, but even in these cases, tanning beds should be used with extreme caution. The vast majority of people should never use them at all.
Keep Your Skin Looking Great
In short, the above measures can help keep your skin not only looking great, but safe from potentially fatal or disfiguring skin cancers. It’s best to combine them and not just choose one or the other. Enjoy the spring and summer, and be sure to keep yourself and your family (especially children) protected. And if you have any questions or suspicious spots you are concerned about, KMC Dermatology is here to help you. Call us at (913) 631-6330.