Health Beat: ‘Let the Sunshine In,’ but carefully

Published 8:21 pm Friday, September 9, 2016

I love the sun. It warms my heart and soul especially after a long spell of rainy days. But, just like everything else in this world of ours, too much of a good thing can lead to unexpected consequences. We all know how “healthy” a young sun-worshiper looks towards the end of summer. Their skin a deep bronze in comparison to a lily white-skinned indoor dweller who avoids the sun at all costs. What we forget is how the sun-lover’s skin will look and feel in 20 to 30 years. We have all seen it, the dark, leather like skin that lacks luster and vibrancy because of overdoses of time in the sun.

 The primary cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation in sunlight. Frequent sun exposure and sunburn in childhood can cause irreversible damage that can lead to skin cancer later in life. A blistering sunburn in the younger years is a risk factor for the development of malignant melanomas. More than 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers occur in fair-skinned people, who tend to sunburn. Dark-skinned people have a lower risk of skin cancer but they are still susceptible to the damaging effects of UV radiation, especially on the eye and immune system.

In the U.S. alone, each year over 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed. How do we reduce the risk of getting skin cancer? Since its inception in 1979, The Skin Cancer Foundation has recommended using a sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher. Unfortunately sunscreen alone is not enough. It is wise to keep the following information in mind in reference to protecting ourselves from UV radiation: seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., do not burn, and avoid tanning and UV tanning booths. When using your daily sunscreen apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours. Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses, and keep in mind that a cotton shirt will offer only an SPF 8. Other preventive measures include examining your skin from head-to-toe every month and seeing your physician every year for a skin examination.

When venturing out into the sun do so with a defensive attitude. Wearing the right kind of clothing will offer more protection than sunscreens. Cloths made of tightly woven fabric are the best protectors of the skin. If you hold your clothes up to a light and can see though the fabric, UV radiation can also pass through. Darker-colored and brightly colored fabrics, i.e. oranges and reds, are more sun-protective than pastel or pale ones. Try using looser-fitting clothes as they allow less light to pass through than tight clothes that stretch a lot.

In today’s market, it is possible to buy UV-absorbing clothes, from swimsuits and shirts to hats and pants. This clothing will usually have a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating, indicating how much UVR it absorbs. A fabric with a 50 UPF allows only 1/50th of the sun’s UVR to pass through. You can also sun-proof your own clothing. Look for household laundry products containing special UV-absorbing agents that allow you to launder UV protection into garments. They can raise the UPF of a white cotton T-shirt from approximately 5-8 to as high as 30.

Sunscreens are chemical agents that help prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin. For women, cosmetics containing sunscreen are fine for incidental everyday exposure, but when the intention is to spend a long time on the beach, a separate, durable, water-resistant sunscreen is required. In addition to an SPF of 15 or higher — which guarantees good UVB protection — look for ingredients such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, MexorylTM, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These compounds are ideal against UVA.

Melanoma is the most dangerous of skin cancers, yet if caught early it is almost 100-percent curable. For many years, the early warning signs of melanoma have been identified by the acronym “ABCDE” (A stands for Asymmetry — or an uneven shape, B stands for Border — irregular is bad, C for Color — pearly, brown/black, or multicolored, D for Diameter — bigger than a pencil eraser, and E for Evolving or changing. Recently a new method of sight detection for skin lesions which could be melanoma has been developed. It is based on the concept that developing melanomas look different — i.e., “the ugly duckling” — compared to surrounding moles. Thus, during skin self-examination, we should be looking for lesions that manifest the ABCDE’s and for lesions that look different compared to surrounding moles.

We are all free to “Let the Sunshine In,” but let’s be smart about it so that we may enjoy many coming years with family and friends as we take to the outdoors in our work or leisure.

Dr. John Inzerillo, MD is a hematologist/oncologist with the Marion L. Shepard Cancer Center of Vidant Beaufort Hospital.

(This column previously ran in the May 24, 2015 issue of the Washington Daily News.)