Take Steps Now To Save Your Skin This Summer

June 20, 2011

Protecting skin from the summer sun

Take Steps Now To Save Your Skin This Summer - and for a Lifetime

Did you know that your skin is your body's largest organ? It performs many functions. Your skin gives you a layer of protection from germs and injury. It helps you maintain a constant body temperature. And nerves that give you the sense of touch are located within it. So it's important to more than your looks to keep your skin healthy.

One of the biggest threats to your skin's health is skin cancer. These statistics from the Skin Cancer Foundation may surprise you:

  • Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. More than 3.5 million cases are diagnosed every year.
  • Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined.
  • One in five Americans will develop it at some point in their lives.

The good news is, there are many ways to help protect yourself from skin cancer. You'll find many good tips listed below. But first, it's helpful to understand a little more about the disease.

The three types of skin cancer and how to spot them

As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, tells us, there are three types of skin cancer. The two most common are basal cell and squamous cell cancer. Basal cell cancers are often flesh-colored. They may look like a waxy bump, or a flat scar. Sometimes they have a sore in the middle.

Squamous cell cancer may appear as a red bump, or a scaly, crusty patch. If you see anything like this on your skin, see your doctor. Both of these types of skin cancer are very curable.

The third type of skin cancer is called melanoma. While not as common, it is much more dangerous. Melanoma shows up as a mole, a sore or a large brown spot with darker speckles. The American Academy of Dermatology, or AAD, urges you to be alert for the ABCDEs of melanoma.

  • A is for asymmetry. One half does not match the other half.
  • B is for border irregularity. The edges may be ragged, notched, or blurred.
  • C is for color. It is not even. You may see different shades of tan, brown, or black. Dashes or red, white, and blue may also be there.
  • D is for diameter. Melanoma is usually larger than six millimeters when diagnosed. That's about the size of a pencil eraser. Of course, the earlier you find it, the better.
  • E is for evolving. Watch for any mole or spot that is changing in size, shape or color.

What are the risk factors for skin cancer?

It's important to know that anyone, from the fairest to the darkest-skinned, can get skin cancer. Everyone needs to be aware of it and to check themselves for new moles or changes to their skin. That said, people with risk factors are more likely than others to develop it. Here are the general risk factors as listed by the CDC:

  • A lighter natural skin color
  • A family history of skin cancer
  • A personal history of skin cancer
  • Exposure to the sun through work and play
  • A history of sunburns early in life
  • A history of indoor tanning
  • Skin that burns, freckles, or reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Certain types and a large number of freckles

Some of these factors, like eye color and family history, are things you can't control. But others you can. And the most important thing you can do is protect yourself from the sun. Ninety percent of skin cancer occurs on parts of the body that are usually exposed. These include the face, ears, neck, and hands.

Save your skin from the sun

Protecting your skin doesn't mean skipping picnics and golf and staying indoors. It just means taking smart steps. Here are tips from the American Cancer Society:

  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Head for the shade, especially in the middle of the day. That's when the sun's rays are strongest. Practice the shadow rule and teach it to children. If your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun's rays are at their strongest.
  • Slip on a shirt. Cover up with protective clothing to guard as much skin as possible. Choose comfortable clothes made of tightly woven fabrics.
  • Slop on sunscreen. Use sunscreen and lip balm with an SPF number of 15 or higher. Apply a generous amount of sunscreen. Reapply it after swimming, toweling dry, or perspiring. Use sunscreen even on hazy or overcast days.
  • Slap on a hat. Cover your head with a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, ears, and neck. If you choose a baseball cap, remember to protect your ears and neck with sunscreen.
  • Wrap on sunglasses. Wear sunglasses with 99% to 100% UV protection.
  • Follow these practices to protect your skin even on cloudy or overcast days. UV rays travel through clouds.
  • Avoid other sources of UV light, such as tanning beds and sun lamps.

Be aware, too, that certain medicine can make your skin more sensitive to the sun. These include some antibiotics, as well as some diabetes, cancer, and high blood pressure medicine.

What are UV rays?

UV is short for "ultraviolet." UV rays are certain types of light rays produced by the sun, tanning booths, and sunlamps. Light rays called UVA are the ones that age your skin. UVB rays are the ones that can burn it. Both are linked to skin cancer.

What does SPF mean?

SPF stands for "sun protection factor." It is based on a comparison between the time it takes for your skin to begin to burn with - and without - protection. Here's an example. Say your skin usually begins to get red after 10 minutes in the sun. An SPF of 15 should allow you to stay out 15 times longer, or 150 minutes. However, very few people use enough sunscreen to give them the best protection. Be sure to apply at least a palmful 15 minutes before you go into the sun. Reapply it often, as noted in the list above.

Which sunscreen should you choose?

With hundreds of creams and lotions on the market, it can be hard to choose. But here are some good suggestions:

  • Pick one that doesn't rinse off easily with water and sweat.
  • Choose one that protects from both UVA and UVB rays.
  • Choose an SPF of 15 or higher. The higher the number, the greater the protection.
  • Pick a formula you like and you'll be more apt to use it regularly.

Stay away from tanning beds

The AAD stresses that there is no safe way to tan. Every time you tan, you damage your skin. That damage builds up over time. Tanning beds give off the same UVA and UVB rays as the sun, and sometimes in higher levels.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services and International Agency for Research on Cancer panel agree. UV radiation from the sun, and sources such as tanning beds and sun lamps, cause cancer.

If you want to look tan, use a self-tanner. But be sure to use a sunscreen with it.

Check your birthday suit on your birthday

The AAD urges everyone to check their skin regularly. This means looking over your entire body, including back, scalp, palms, soles, and between your toes. It will help you remember if you do it each year on your birthday.

See your doctor right away if you find anything unusual. That includes a mole that is different from others, or that changes, itches or bleeds, even if it is very small. And if you have risk factors, get checked every year by a skin doctor, or dermatologist.

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