July 13, 2010 in Features

And again: When it comes to safety, nothing beats sunscreen

Leslie Barker Garcia Dallas Morning News
 
Sunscreen facts

Many people still don’t use sunscreen correctly, dermatologists say. Here are some truths you may not know:

Sunscreen takes time to start working: Instead of slathering on lotion when you’re already outside, apply it 20 to 30 minutes before leaving the house.

Self-tanner doesn’t help shield skin: For complex chemical reasons, staining your skin before heading out into the sun can make you more susceptible to damage.

If you want to self-tan, apply the color the night before – then put on a regular coat of sunscreen during the day.

You can have a base tan and still burn: Even if you look like a bronze god, don’t skip the sunscreen.

You can put sunscreen near your eyes: In fact, 5 to 10 percent of all skin cancers appear on eyelids. Carefully rub regular sunscreen on your lids or look for specially formulated products for sensitive facial skin, and wear a wide-brimmed hat.

Sunscreen doesn’t increase sweating: Research instead has found it can temporarily cool you down by blocking the sun’s rays from penetrating your skin. If lotions do bother you, especially during exercise, try sunscreen sticks which are waxier and won’t run.

It’s never too late: Even if you’ve had frequent sunburns in the past, you can still reduce your risk of skin cancer now. Daily sunscreen use will slow the growth of existing precancerous sun spots as well as reduce the number of new ones.

– Alison Johnson, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)

The word of the day should be rubbed on your arms, smeared on your legs, massaged into your scalp and shoulders.

It should be dabbed across the bridge of your nose, sloshed onto your hands and feet, tickled onto your ears.

In so doing, it becomes not merely a word, but a lifesaver: sunscreen.

“Sunscreen is a major technological revolution,” says Dr. Clay Cockerell, clinical professor of dermatology and pathology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. “It’s the No. 1 tool we have for protecting your skin.”

Sadly, most of us either aren’t using it, aren’t using enough or are using it the wrong way. So if you’re shrugging at this point, as you head out the door into the sun, here are some dermatologist-provided numbers that you might want to pay attention to:

• 1 million: The number of skin cancer cases diagnosed each year in the United States.

• 65,000: The number of those that are melanoma.

• One per hour: Deaths from melanoma.

What’s frustrating is that people know tanning is bad for them, but they don’t stop.

“Tanning is the social standard,” says Dr. Jennifer Cather, a Dallas dermatologist. “My personal thing is that I don’t tan or use self-tanners because I want people to see that pale is pretty. Look at Gwyneth Paltrow and Nicole Kidman.”

Which leads us to a few more numbers:

• Five: Number of years it takes for your skin to get totally back to normal after a sunburn, Cockerell says.

• 20: Traditional number of years after exposure for skin cancer to develop. Now, he says, “we’re seeing teenagers getting melanoma after going to tanning parlors for five years.”

• 12: Age by which we get 80 percent of our lifetime sun exposure, Cather says.

With summer in full swing, here’s some advice on protecting yourself from those skin-toasting rays.

On sunscreen

• How much?

Lots. A shot glass worth if you’re going to be outside for a while.

If Labor Day rolls around and you still have sunscreen left in the bottle you opened on Memorial Day, you didn’t use nearly enough.

• How often?

“Nothing is waterproof,” Cather says. “Everything has to be applied every two hours. There’s no such thing as ‘all-day protection.’ ”

• Where?

Use it on all exposed skin, not just your face. Think ears, toes, the place where your tank top meets your underarm.

Men are especially susceptible to melanomas on their backs, women on the backs of their legs.

• When?

Every time you walk out the door. Even if you’re not going to the beach or working as a camp counselor, harmful rays can hit your skin when you stroll to the car or sit outside for lunch. Apply it every day, several times a day.

• What SPF?

Higher than you’re probably using.

“Sunscreen is instantly diluted with your body’s oils, and absorption takes place,” Cockerell says. “You put on 15, you’re probably only getting 10 to 12 immediately. When you start sweating, it goes down even further. It can change to a 3 or 4 relatively quickly.

“I used to use SPF 30 and I’d get a tan through it. Now I use 85 or 90 and don’t get a tan at all.”

On skin cancer

• No race, nationality or skin color is immune.

African-Americans get skin cancer. So do Hispanics and other people who aren’t necessarily freckle-faced, red-haired and pale.

“They’re lucky they don’t have to be quite as careful,” Cockerell says. “But it’s not a free ride for them either.”

• Check your body. Often.

“Look for the ugly ducklings, the (markings) that stand out from the others,” Cather says. “Does it have personality; is it itching, bleeding or crusty?”

• Schedule a skin check with a dermatologist.

“You need to point out what’s changing on your skin,” Cather says. “People come in and ask me to look at things that are 1 to 2 millimeters that I wouldn’t have taken off. If it’s bothering you, point it out.”

On tanning

• It’s as dangerous to skin as smoking is to your lungs.

“It’s somewhat of an addiction,” Cockerell says. “It causes the endorphins to rise. There are literally those people who go to tanning parlors six, seven days a week.”

• Set a good example.

“I see moms every day who are sunburned and their kids see that and think it’s OK,” Cather says.

• Healthy tan is an oxymoron.

“A tan on your skin is a sign of damage,” Cockerell says. “It’s your body’s response to injury. Tans aren’t made to make you look pretty; they’re to protect from further UV light damage.”

• Take the sun seriously.

“People think, ‘I have my sunscreen; I’m fine,’ ” Cockerell says. “Use it, and take shade, too.”

Avoid sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wear protective clothing and – ideally – a hat with a 3-inch brim. Cather has seen clinic patients whose heads were covered with skin cancers that even a baseball cap would have prevented.

• You don’t need a suntan to get enough vitamin D.

“I’m probably the poster child for protecting skin,” Cockerell says. “I wear 85 to 90 SPF sunscreen. People make fun of me for wearing a broad-brimmed hat. I had my vitamin D levels tested and they’re normal. One of our concerns is that people will take this as an excuse for tanning, and worsen their potential for getting melanoma and skin cancer.”

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