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UV Safety Month A Reminder about the Dangers of Sun Exposure

July 12, 2011

How is your skin like a bank?

"Your skin collects ultraviolet (UV) ray damage from birth and then gives back the ‘deposit’ with ‘interest,’" says Anna T. McNay, M.D., a board certified dermatologist on the medical staff at Washington Hospital. "Sallow skin, loss of skin laxity, brown spots, thinned skin, blotchy skin, broken blood vessels, and even skin cancer, can result when UV radiation is absorbed into your unprotected skin over time."

July is UV Safety Month, a good opportunity to learn about the dangers of exposure to UV radiation from the sun and how to protect yourself and your family when you are outside.

"When skin is unprotected, UV radiation is absorbed and can cause alternations in the DNA, RNA, lipids and protein components of the skin," explains Dr. McNay. "Initially, the effects are not too visible. But, over time, these changes will become noticeable as wrinkles, sun spots and maybe even cancers."

UV rays are a type of long wave or nonionizing radiation. They come from the same family as infrared and visible light. Typically, UV radiation is divided into three subgroups: UVA, UVB and UVC. So far, UVA and UVB affect us the most. Fortunately the most damaging radiation, UVC, is blocked by the earth’s ozone layer. This is one reason it is important for us to help save the ozone layer by protecting our environment.

UVA has a longer wavelength and penetrates deeper into the second layer of the skin, called the dermis. It is sometimes called the "A-ging" ray because it breaks down collagen, elastic fibers and blood vessels, giving us wrinkles, loose skin, and broken blood vessels on the surface of the skin. UVB is a shorter wavelength radiation that mostly affects the epidermis, or top layer of the skin. It is known as the "B-urning" ray that gives us redness or a sunburn after the skin is exposed to radiation without protection.

"To protect yourself from harmful UV rays during July and year-round, you should be sun smart," recommends Dr. McNay. "Stay away from the outdoors when the UV index is high. If that’s unavoidable, wear sunscreens and protective UPF clothing."

The UV Index was developed by the National Weather Service and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It indicates the strength of solar UV radiation on a scale from 1 (low) to 11+ (extremely high). You can check the UV Index each day by going online to www.epa.gov/sunwise.

"The UV Index can be helpful because it is always good to know how dangerous the rays are that day," observes Dr. McNay. "But, if the radiation is not as high on a certain day, that doesn’t give you a pass to skip UV protection."

Other things you can do to protect yourself from the sun include:

- Sit in the shade

-Wear sunscreen regularly, just like you brush your teeth. Even on a cloudy day, UV radiation can penetrate through the clouds.

- Use a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunblock that is at least SPF 30, water resistant and sweat proof, and wear sun protective clothing.

- You can also wear 100 percent UVA/UVB protective sunglasses to help protect your eyes from cataracts, eyelid skin cancer and other problems.

"Labeling of sunscreen products is currently inadequate," states Dr. McNay. "SPF measures only UVB protection, but not UVA. Protection from sweat proof and water resistant sunscreen does not last more than 40 to 80 minutes."

To address these problems, the Food and Drug Administration has new sunscreen regulations. They include wearing a broad-spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen. The highest SPF labeling a sunscreen can claim is 50+since there is not much difference with products that are higher than 50. With the new regulations, UVA protection will be graded from 0 (the lowest) to 4 (the highest). Manufacturers are required to disclose the exact amount of time the sunscreen remains water resistant.

Other tips on how to protect yourself from UV rays include:

- Water, sand and snow can add up to another 50 percent to 80 percent radiation due to reflection. So, just wearing a hat while you’re in the swimming pool isn’t enough. You still need sunblock.

- Try to use physical based sunscreens that are mineral-based with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These do not damage the environment when they wash off in the water.

"You should also know that indoor tanning is just as dangerous, if not worse, than sun at the beach," reports Dr. McNay. "When you are at a tanning salon, you are getting direct UVA and/or UVB radiation in a very confined environment. This will greatly increase your chances of getting skin cancer. Right now, there is a sharp increase in the number of young women diagnosed with the deadly melanoma skin cancer and at more advanced stages."

Currently, the California Dermatology Society (CalDerm), a grassroots organization for patients and dermatologists in California, is sponsoring a legislative bill in Sacramento, H.R. 2092, which proposes a tax to help deter people from using indoor tanning salons.

Learn More

For a more in-depth discussion about UV Safety and its impact on health, go to the Washington Hospital Web site at www.whhs.com and click on the InHealth broadcast schedule to see a program on sun protection featuring Dr. McNay, dermatologist David Gorsulowsky, M.D., ophthalmologist Steven Andersen, M.D., and InHealth host Barbara Kostick, M.D.

You can also get more information by visiting the web site of the American Academy of Dermatology at www.aad.org.

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