Be Safe in the Sun
In 8 key numbers, here’s a summer skin-safety guide you can ‘count’ on.
There’s dan ger in too much sun—we all know that by now. But it’s what we do with that knowledge that is still getting us burned.
“There certainly has been increased public awareness,” says Franz Smith, M.D., a Saint Barnabas Medical Center physician who is board-certified in complex general surgical oncology and has a special interest in skin cancer. “But there seems to be a gap between having that knowledge and actually utilizing it. Many people purchase sunscreen, for instance, but do not necessarily use it as liberally or as frequently as they should.”
If you’re the type that excels at counting calories when you’re trying to reduce, and pennies when you’re budgeting, maybe some revealing numbers can help. In that spirit, here are eight numbers you should know to save your skin this summer:
That’s where skin cancer ranks—it’s the most common cancer in the United States, affecting about 3.5 million people each year. In 2011, the most recent year for which statistics have been compiled by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 65,647 men and women in this country were diagnosed with melanoma, and 9,128 people died from the disease. The danger of this disease is not to be taken lightly.
That’s how many minutes it takes for the sun’s powerful ultraviolet (UV) rays to damage skin cells. So you need to protect yourself any time you’re going out in the sun for even that short a time.
That’s the minimum sun protection factor, or SPF, you should choose when you purchase sunscreen, says Dr. Smith. Sun protection products contain chemicals that interact with the skin to absorb, reflect or scatter sunlight. These products are assigned an SPF according to how effective they are at blocking UV rays; the higher the number, the more protection. Be careful to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which blocks both types of rays, UVA and UVB.
“Use 2 ounces of sunscreen at each application,” Dr. Smith advises. “One challenge here is that many people buy expensive sunscreens, but then use them sparingly because of worry about wasting them. Don’t treasure sunscreen—apply it liberally.” It’s best to put on sunscreen one hour before going outdoors and reapply the same amount every two hours—or more often if you go into the water or perspire a lot from outdoor activity.
The sun is at its strongest—and most dangerous—between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. “Avoid the sun’s peak hours as much as possible,” Dr. Smith says. If you are outside at these times, he suggests, seek shade from a tree, umbrella or other shelter as often as you can.
Dr. Smith says that up to 80 percent of one’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before age 18. So keep a close eye on your children. “And set an example for them by taking the same precautions that you demand of them,” says the doctor.
Your skin is your body’s largest organ; for an average-size person, it covers about 18 square feet. You need to protect all of it when you go outdoors, and the clothing you choose can help from head to toe. Loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from tightly woven fabric keep the sun at bay, and you can buy clothing that includes chemicals that offer SPF protection as well. Cover your face, your ears and the back of your neck with a widebrim hat made of tightly woven material such as canvas; straw or other hats with holes let sunlight through. Your eyes are at risk of burning too, so wear sunglasses that are rated to protect eyes from UV rays.
If you think indoor tanning is a safe way to get a tan, think again. A 2014 study estimates that more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer a year in this country are related to indoor tanning— including 6,000 cases of melanoma, the most serious skin cancer, which can be fatal.
The alphabet, too, can help save your skin
Numbers aren’t the only skin-safety shorthand. Letters can be useful as well—reminding you of the signs that a mark on your skin needs to be checked out by a dermatologist or other physician. When you spot a mole on your skin, follow the “ABCDE” rule, and check for—
- A for asymmetry—It doesn’t look the same on both sides.
- B for border—It has blurry or jagged edges.
- C for color—It changes color, including darkening, spread of color, loss of color or multiple colors such as blue, red, white, pink, purple or gray.
- D for diameter—It’s larger than ¼ inch in diameter (about the size of a pencil eraser).
- E for elevation—It’s raised above the skin and has an uneven surface.
If your mole has any of these “red flag” signs, see your physician or a dermatologist right away. The sooner skin cancer is treated, the greater chance it can be cured. “The good news is that, because of increased awareness, more diagnoses are being made earlier,” Dr. Smith says. “But cases of melanoma are on the rise, and this is still a public health epidemic.”
For more information about the Melanoma Center at Saint Barnabas Medical Center, please call 973.322.6515 or visit barnabashealth.org/sbmc.