Community Health Nurse, USA MEDDAC
Summer is here – the time of year when families and friends get together for barbecues, baseball games, swimming, camping and bike riding. Soaking up the sun’s rays used to be considered healthy. Now we know that the sun produces both visible and invisible rays. The invisible rays, known as ultraviolet-A and ultraviolet-B, cause most of the problems.
Short-term effects of unprotected exposure to ultraviolet rays are sunburn and tanning. Long-term exposure of UV rays may result in prematurely aged skin, wrinkles, age spots, dilated blood vessels and skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common of all cancer types. More than 1 million Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year, according to the American Cancer Society. That’s more than prostate, breast, lung, colon, uterus, ovarian and pancreatic cancer combined.
The number of skin cancers has been on the rise steadily for the past 30 years. The most serious form of skin cancer is melanoma, which will account for about 62,190 cases of skin cancer in 2006 and 7,910 anticipated deaths this year.
The good news is that there is a lot you can do to protect yourself and your family from skin cancer. It is nearly impossible to completely avoid sunlight. However, there are safe sun guidelines you can follow to protect your skin and reduce your risk of skin cancer.
It is best to limit your direct sun exposure from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when ultraviolet rays are the strongest. One way to tell if you are unsure about the sun’s intensity is to take the shadow test. Sun rays are the strongest when your shadow is shorter than you.
If you must be outdoors, you need to protect your skin. A wide-brimmed hat with a six-inch brim is ideal to protect your face, neck and ears from the sun. Baseball caps will not protect the back of your neck or the tops of your ears. Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved shirts and long pants made of tightly woven fabric. Dark-colored clothing provides more protection than light colors. If you can see light through the fabric, UV rays can get through, too.
Research shows that long hours in the sun without eye protection increases the chances of developing cataracts. Ideal sunglasses do not have to be expensive; they just need to be able to block both UVA and UVB rays.
The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that if you must be in the sun, use sunscreen with a sun protection factor of at least 15, even on cloudy days. The higher the SPF, the greater protection from sunburn, caused mostly by UVB rays. Sunscreen products labeled “broad spectrum” protect against UVA and UVB radiation.
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors. If you plan to swim or sweat from strenuous exercise, you should buy a waterproof sunscreen. For best results, reapply sunscreen at least every two hours and more often if you are swimming, drying off or sweating.
It is important to perform monthly skin checks for signs of skin cancer. Try doing your skin check on the same day each month. Pick a day that you can remember, such as the date of your birthday. You will need to follow up with your primary care provider for further evaluation if you notice any of the warning signs listed below:
* reddish patch of skin that doesn’t go away;
* any sore that doesn’t heal;
* any sore that blisters, oozes fluid or has a crusty texture;
* scar-like patch of skin that looks yellow and/or waxy;
* smooth growth that appears to be indented in the center;
* smooth growth with raised rim; and
* a mole that changes appearance in size, color, texture, shape or sensation.
Everyone should be able to enjoy sunny days. If you follow safe-sun guidelines, you and your family will be able to safely work and play outdoors without worrying too much about skin cancer and wrinkles.