Let’s face it. No one thinks excessive sun exposure is healthy, but if you go to the beach on a sunny day, you’ll find people stripped down to their swimsuits to soak in the rays. Why? Because it feels good, and some people like the look of tanned skin.
The fact is, however, sunburns and long-term exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are bad for our skin, the body’s largest organ. While it might not be obvious to the naked eye, unprotected sun exposure causes the skin to deteriorate, including premature ageing and loss of elasticity. In the short term, it can also lead to rashes, itchiness and dryness. In the long term, it can lead to skin cancer.
If you enjoy being outdoors, just be sure to protect your skin by taking the following precautions.
- Wear sunscreen every day. Put it on a half hour before you plan to be in the sun, and if you spend the day in the sun, reapply it every couple hours. If you sweat or go swimming, reapply again.
- If you plan to spend several hours in the sun, wear protective clothing: a wide-brimmed hat, lightweight long sleeves and slacks, and sunglasses with a UV filter.
- Avoid peak hours. The sun is strongest in the middle of the day, so stay indoors between 10 am and 3:00 pm, if possible.
I’m always surprised by the misinformation that gets stuck in people’s brains. Here are some myths corrected.
Myth #1: Once I have a base tan (or if I naturally have darker skin), I don’t need to wear sunscreen.
It’s true that you’re less likely to burn if you have a tan or have more melanin in your skin, but sunscreen protects against more than just sunburns, it protects against long-term radiation that can lead to cancer, so everyone should wear sunscreen.
Myth #2: I need sun exposure for my body to make vitamin D.
You probably get plenty of vitamin D from your diet, since many foods are fortified with it these days.
Myth #3: The sun isn’t as strong in winter or on cloudy days, so I don’t need to wear sunscreen then.
Anyone who has seen the raccoon-eyed snow skier knows the sun can burn you in winter and summer. And, as much as 80 percent of the sun’s rays penetrate the clouds, so slather up.
Myth #4: Sunscreen isn’t safe for babies.
Sunscreens are safe for babies as young as six months of age. According to the Cleveland Clinic website, if sunscreens were used regularly by children through the age of 18, there would be a 72 percent reduction in the cases of skin cancer later in life.
Whether you’ve spent too much time in the sun or not, you can get skin cancer.
Here are some signs that may signal skin cancer or a pre-cancerous growth.
- New bumps, moles, or discoloration.
- Scaly, red patches that don’t go away.
- “Farmer’s lip” – scaly, red, dry patches on the lips.
- Asymmetrical moles.
- Moles with many color variations, including shades of tan, brown, black, blue, white, or red.
- Moles that are changing rapidly for you to notice.
- Moles with irregular edges.
- Moles that itch, ooze or bleed.
While anyone can get skin cancer, you’re at greater risk if you have the following traits:
- Fair skin or light-colored eyes
- An abundance of large, irregularly-shaped moles
- A family history of skin cancer
- A history of excessive sun exposure or blistering sunburns
- A history living at high altitudes or where there is year-round sunshine
- A history of radiation treatments
It’s a good idea to see a dermatologist like Dr. McClintock at MCHC once a year to monitor any suspicious growths. When skin cancer is detected early, patients can often have a full recovery.
Chris Ayeko is a family nurse practitioner at MCHC Health Centers, a local, non-profit, federally qualified health center offering medical, dental and behavioral health care to people in Lake and Mendocino Counties.