May 20, 2005

Keep the sun’s rays at bay

By Ana Hernandez-Bravo

With the onset of spring and summer just over the horizon, wardrobes will start to reveal more skin, especially while poolside or beach bound.

However, even though skin is our largest organ, it is often the least cared for organ. Just like the internal organs of our bodies, skin needs special care, vitamins, nutrients, and attention.

Also, skin care has the stigma that it is a “woman’s concern.” Skin care is usually taken to only include moisturizing, creams, masks, facials, and peels. Men should also realize that they have skin that needs to be taken care of also. This is because skin care also includes sun protection. The sun does provide vitamin D which is needed for good health, however too much sun can lead to bad things such as skin cancer.

Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers in the US, according to the American Cancer Society. More than a million non-melanoma skin cancer cases and about 59,600 new melanomas will be diagnosed in the U.S. this year, says the ACS.

Even though anyone can get skin cancer, there are some people who have slightly higher risks. The risk is greatest for people who have fair or freckled skin that burns easily, light eyes and blond or red hair. Darker skinned individuals can also get all types of skin cancer, yet their risk is substantially lower. This, however, is no excuse to not use sun protection.

This is because there are other risk factors that include having a family history or personal history of skin cancer, having an outdoor job and living in a sunny climate. A history of severe sunburns and many large and/or irregularly-shaped moles are risk factors unique to melanoma. Even sunburns that happened during childhood can increase the risk of getting skin cancer. All of these factors show that men and women are equally at risk and should take precautions to protect their skin.

Sunscreen is the most common form of skin protection. However, in order to be properly protected the sunscreen must work against both forms of UV radiation. Yet, while sunscreen does help there are certain factors to look for. Sunscreens used for skin protection should have a sun protection factor that is higher than 15. Also sunscreen should be applied generously at least half an hour before prolonged sun exposure and it should be reapplied every 2-3 hours.

Yet, sunscreen is by no means the only form of skin protection against the sun. Avoiding the mid-day sun, which is between 10 am and 3 pm, wearing wide brimmed hats, staying in the shade if possible, and avoiding tanning beds are other good sun protection behaviors. Also it is good to apply more sunscreen (with higher SPF) when around reflective surfaces like water, snow, or ice.

People should also be aware that some medications, such as prescription acne medications or birth control pills, among other prescriptions can increase sensitivity to the sun, so increasing sun protection is a very good idea.

Blocking the sun as a form of skin protection is so important because the sun emits ultraviolet radiation. This UV radiation causes changes in the skin including wrinkles, discoloration, freckles or age spots, benign growths such as moles, and pre-cancerous or cancerous growths such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

There are two main types of UV radiation: UVB and UVA. UVB rays cause sunburns and UVA rays cause tanning. However, this doesn’t mean that UVA rays are safe.

UVA rays are believed to be responsible for photoaging – the damage that occurs to the skin from many years of exposure to the sun. Both rays contribute to the risk of developing skin cancer.

There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.

According to WebMD, the non-melanoma skin cancers, Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious types and make up 95% of all skin cancers. These types of skin cancers are highly curable when treated early.

The most serious form of skin cancer is Melanoma which is made up of abnormal skin pigment cells called melanocytes. Melanoma causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths. If it is left untreated, it can spread to other organs and becomes difficult to control.

In order to help people find signs of melanoma, there is an ABCD rule that explains the signs to watch for:

Asymmetry - the shape of one half doesn’t match the other

Border - edges are ragged or blurred

Color - uneven shades of brown, black, tan, red, white or blue

Diameter - A significant change in size (greater than 6mm)

The numbers of skin cancer cases are increasing, which may be due to increased exposure to UV radiation from sun, tanning beds, and sun lamps, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Many people are drawn to these sources of harmful UV rays because of the allure of getting a tan. Some people believe that having a tan will make them “sexier.”

“Despite the fact that we know that there is no such thing as a safe tan, people still associate bronzed skin with beauty and health,” says New York University Medical Center dermatologist Darrell Rigel, MD, in a news release.

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