Tribune Print Share Text

Protect your skin from the sun

Created date

July 23rd, 2013
The sun

Sunlight is your skin’s enemy throughout life. Although much of the damage might have already occurred, it is still important to take care of your skin.

The scoop on sunscreen

Sunscreen can be your best weapon against skin damage. “I recommend that people use sunscreen all year if they are going to be outside for any period of time,” says Eugenio Machado, M.D., medical director at . target="_blank">Riderwood, an Erickson Living community in Silver Spring, Md.

“Sunscreens can contain minerals such as titanium and zinc that sit on top of your skin to reflect the sun’s ultraviolet rays or they can contain avobenzone products that you rub in to protect the skin by absorbing the rays,” says Ramzi W. Saad, M.D., board-certified dermatologist at South Shore Skin Center in Boston, Mass. “These are both effective for reducing ultraviolet rays that reach your skin.”

The term “sunblock” is being phased out on product labels because nothing can completely block the sun, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has established other new labeling rules to minimize confusion. For instance, sunscreens can no longer claim they are waterproof or sweat proof, but they can still advertise water or sweat resistance.

“The best sunscreens have the term ‘broad spectrum’ on the label,” Saad explains. “This means that they screen out both types of ultraviolet rays—A and B. In addition, the SPF or sun protection factor should be at least 30.”

The SPF is the amount of protection you get. For instance, if you burn in ten minutes without sunscreen, an SPF 30 would mean you can stay in the sun 30 times longer, or 300 minutes, without burning. But experts do not recommend that you stay in the sun for that long without applying more sunscreen. “The SPF does not take into account the rate that the product wears off,” Saad explains. “This time can vary depending on the person, the weather, or the amount of activity. You should always reapply sunscreen every two hours—more often if you are sweating or swimming.”

The FDA has ruled that sunscreens cannot claim an SPF number greater than 50 as studies show that higher numbered products don’t confer more protection.

The damage done

According to the National Institutes of Health, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S. “The likelihood that skin cells will turn cancerous increases with age,” Machado says. Our immune systems are less likely to control abnormal cell growth, and a lifetime of sun exposure begins to have negative consequences.”

Basal cell carcinoma is the most common. This slow-growing cancer affects skin primarily on the face, arms, legs, and other areas that typically get a lot of sun. “Basal cell cancers can appear a number of ways,” Saad says. “Whether it is a bump, a rash, or discoloration, any minor change in the appearance of your skin should be evaluated by a doctor.”

Squamous cell cancer is somewhat less common. It tends to grow a little faster than basal cell cancer, but both types are rarely fatal if caught and treated early. “Your doctor can decide the best treatment—usually it involves simply removing the abnormal area, which can be done right in the office,” Saad says.

Melanoma is a serious, aggressive form of cancer. Although it accounts for less than 5% of skin cancers, it is the most deadly and the highest rates occur in people over 80, according to the American Cancer Society. “Melanoma has a more characteristic appearance,” Saad says. “Any change in the size, shape, or color of a mole; a new mole; or an area of skin that is darker than usual could signal melanoma.” Treatment depends on how far the disease has spread. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation may be necessary. “Melanoma can be cured if it is detected and treated early,” Saad says.

Less serious sun-related skin problems can be more harmful than you think. “A serious sunburn in an older adult can lead to dehydration,” Machado says. “Older skin is fragile and you may not be able to stay out in the sun as long as you used to, and being even a little dehydrated can have health consequences.”

Sun-related skin dryness is more than a cosmetic issue. Tiny breaks in dry skin can allow infection to start, contribute to a serious wound, or worsen an already existing skin problem such as eczema or psoriasis. You may be prone to dry skin, particularly if you have health conditions such as diabetes or circulation problems or if you take diuretics or medications that have skin-related side effects.

Protecting your largest organ

Even if you diligently apply a moisturizing sunscreen, your skin can still get dry. Take care of it by using mild soap, washing in warm water instead of hot, and applying moisturizer every day.

Take additional sun protection measures. “Wear protective clothing and hats,” Saad advises, “and avoid the sun during the middle of the day when the rays are strongest.”

Having regular screening exams is essential to treat skin problems, especially cancer. “Your doctor will look for any changes in your skin, including your scalp and other areas that are difficult for you to see,” Saad says. “A thorough exam every year is necessary for everyone. Depending on your health, you may need it more often.

“Every month, inspect your skin at home—use a mirror if necessary and don’t forget to look at your back, your feet, and the backs of your legs,” Saad adds. “Even if you think you have simply a new age spot, call your doctor.”

A fear of cancer shouldn’t keep you from going outside, however. “Getting out is good for you,” Machado says. “You can get a little exercise and being outdoors clears out the cobwebs and lifts your mood.”

Monitoring for melanoma

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that you use the alphabet as a guide when inspecting moles or other pigmented areas of skin:

A Asymmetry: One part of the mole appears different than other parts

B Border: Poorly defined or irregular edges

C Color: The color varies throughout the area

D Diameter: If it’s bigger than a pencil eraser, see your doctor right away

E Evolving: The area is changing in color, size, or shape