Summer's coming: Save your skin

  • Dermatologists recommend sunscreens with at least SPF 30, which blocks about 97% of UV rays.

    Dermatologists recommend sunscreens with at least SPF 30, which blocks about 97% of UV rays. Stock Photo

  • Apply sunscreen generously if you are going to be outside enjoying the sun.

    Apply sunscreen generously if you are going to be outside enjoying the sun. Stock Photo

 
By Teri Dreher
Updated 5/22/2022 9:16 AM

For a lot of us, May marks the start of summer outdoor activities as the days become progressively warmer and longer. If you're looking forward to picnics, swimming pools, sports -- or just lounging on the patio -- remember to take care of your skin.

The sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays -- as we all know -- are the primary cause of skin cancer, which is diagnosed more frequently than all other cancers combined. Each year in the U.S. more than 5 million people are treated for it.

 

With May designated as National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, it's a good time to remind ourselves how to avoid overexposure to the sun and prevent skin cancer. First, though, let's look at the three main types of skin cancer.

• Basal cell carcinoma starts where new skin cells are forming and older ones are dying. It may appear as a transparent bump, especially in areas exposed to the sun. Long-term UV exposure is the leading cause.

• Squamous cell carcinoma develops on areas exposed to the sun, such as ears, hands and face. It develops a firm, red nodule or flat lesions with crust-like surface.

• Melanoma is the most severe form of skin cancer due to its ability to spread. It can occur anywhere on the body, forming large, brownish spots with darker areas. Another sign is a mole that changes in size, color or shape.

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Fortunately, skin cancers are among the most curable and preventable forms of cancer. Because an ounce of sunscreen is worth a pound of cure, prevention is the way to go -- especially with young children and older adults, whose skin is very sensitive.

Who's at risk?

Well, everyone, but especially those who have a history of sunburn, spend a lot of time in the sun, have a lot of moles, have a family history of skin cancer, have had a previous diagnosis of skin cancer, have been exposed to radiation or have a weakened immune system.

Sunscreen, sunscreen, sunscreen

Apply sunscreen generously every day, even if you're just going to work. Many cosmetics these days come with SPF (sun protection factor) ratings, so you don't have to smell like you're going to the beach.

Dermatologists recommend sunscreens with at least SPF 30, which blocks about 97% of UV rays. No additional benefit has been shown from sunscreens with more than 50 SPF. For children, consider mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide. Remember to apply sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before going outside and reapply frequently if you're swimming or sweating.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Hide from the sun

The sun is at its most damaging between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so if you can, plan your outdoor activities to avoid those times. And remember: UV rays penetrate clouds, so you can burn on an overcast day.

There are a lot of new options and fabrics for UV-blocking clothing. I especially recommend children have swimwear that covers their back, chest and arms, as childhood sunburn is a leading indicator of future skin cancer.

A T-shirt is better than not wearing any protection, but darker colors will keep more UV rays out than light, loosely-woven fabrics. Hats and sunglasses are also important. Poolside or at the beach, sit under an umbrella or a portable cabana (again, especially good for kids).

And don't forget a hat and sunglasses.

How about tanning beds?

It was thought, once upon a time, that a tanning bed was safer than the sun. Not so! Don't "lay out" in the sun or use a tanning bed. Instead, there are plenty of self-tanning lotions that won't turn you orange.

Take a good look at yourself

Examine your skin regularly for suspicious lesions or changes in the size, shape or color of a mole. Ask a spouse or partner to look at the areas you can't see, such as the back of your neck. Bring any concerns to your doctor right away. It's better to remove a lesion and have it come back benign than do nothing and take a chance it might be skin cancer.

What about vitamin D?

It's true sunlight is the best source of vitamin D. It takes only about 10 minutes of exposure to the midday sun without sunscreen to give yourself all the vitamin D you need, but it's much safer to get it from your diet and vitamin supplements.

'Don't Fry Day'

May 27, the Friday before Memorial Day, is designated "Don't Fry Day" by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. Clever, but don't wait. Stock up on what you will need now to have fun in the sun this summer.

• Teri Dreher is a board-certified patient advocate. A critical care nurse for 30+ years, she is founder of NShore Patient Advocates (www.NorthShoreRN.com). She is offering a free phone consultation to Daily Herald readers; call her at (847) 612-6684.

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