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Fun in the Sun Doesn’t Have to Include Skin Cancer

June 12, 2012

Protect Yourself Against the Sun’s Harmful Rays

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers, yet millions of Americans will expose their skin to the sun’s harmful rays this summer. According to the American Cancer Society, more than 3.5 million skin cancers are diagnosed each year in the United States.

“The incidence of skin cancer is on the rise in this country,” said Dr. David Gorsulowsky, a dermatologist in private practice in Fremont and a member of the Washington Hospital Medical staff. “We have seen the numbers double and even triple for some types of skin cancer over the last 20 to 30 years.”

Most skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays, and much of this exposure comes from the sun, according to Gorsulowsky. UVA rays cause the skin to age and are linked to long-term skin damage like wrinkles. UVB rays are the main cause of sunburns and are thought to cause most skin cancers.

“Each time a person is exposed to sun, more damage occurs to the important layers of the skin,” he said. “This damage is cumulative and irreversible.”

While there are many kinds of skin cancers, there are two main types: keratinocyte cancers (basal cell and squamous cell) and melanomas. Basal and squamous cell are by far the most common skin cancers. Both generally occur on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, like the head, neck, and arms, Gorsulowsky explained. These cancers rarely spread to other organs.

Early Detection

“Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are much less likely to be fatal than melanomas,” he added. “But they still need to be detected and treated early because they destroy normal tissue until treated.”

Melanomas can occur anywhere, but are more likely to be found in specific areas, like the chest and back for men and the legs for women. They can start in areas protected from sun.

“Melanoma is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body,” Gorsulowsky said. “While it is the more deadly form of skin cancer, it can be cured in the early stages like basal and squamous cell cancers. That’s why early detection is so critical. You should have a visual inspection of your skin every year by an appropriately trained medical caregiver. People of every race and skin tone can get skin cancer, so it’s important for everyone.”

He said annual skin exams are particularly important for those who have a family history of skin cancer or are at greater risk. Those at higher risk for sun-related skin cancer include people who have a large number of moles or freckles, have fair skin and light eyes, spend a lot of time outdoors, and take certain medications that increase sun sensitivity.

Even if the damage to the skin doesn’t result in skin cancer, it has other negative effects, including wrinkles, blotches, and dark spots.

“Sun exposure increases the rate of aging, making your face look older than its chronological years,” Gorsulowsky said. “People talk about a ‘healthy tan,’ but in the end the sun actually creates a very unhealthy look.”

Cover Up

The best way to protect yourself from the sun’s damaging rays is to cover up and reduce your exposure, particularly between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when UV rays are the strongest. The American Cancer Society uses the catch phrase “Slip!, Slop!, Slap!” Slip on a shirt, slop on some sunscreen, and slap on a hat.

“Cover up as much skin as possible with protective clothing,” Gorsulowsky said. “Long-sleeve shirts and long pants cover much of the skin. A wide-brimmed hat can help to protect your face and neck.”

He said clothing offers variable levels of protection. Thinner, lighter-colored garments offer less protection from harmful UV rays. Some companies now make clothing that is lightweight, comfortable, and protects against UV exposure, according to Gorsulowsky. He said one way to choose effective protective clothing is to look for the American Academy of Dermatology’s seal of approval on the label.

In addition, sunscreen is a must to block out some of the sun’s harmful rays. Sunscreens are available in a number of forms, including lotions, creams, ointments, gels, sprays, and wipes.

“You need to read the labels when you buy sunscreen and look for a product that blocks both UVA and UVB rays,” he said. “Look for a sun protection factor, or SPF, of 30 or higher. Often people think the SPF indicates the strength, but it doesn’t. It is a factor of time. An SPF of 30 means that you can receive 30 times the usual amount of exposure before turning red. Still, sunscreens do not protect against the sun’s other rays, so being sensible about the length of time in the sun is necessary.”

To be effective, sunscreen needs to be reapplied often. Look for sunscreens that are water resistant so they can hold up to water and perspiration longer. He also recommends using sunscreens that have physical blockers in them like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

“The takeaway from all this is you can enjoy the great outdoors this summer,” Gorsulowsky added. “But you have to protect yourself against the sun’s damaging UV rays. You need to wear sunscreen and cover up.”

For information about classes and wellness programs at Washington Hospital that can help you stay healthy, visit www.whhs.com.

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