Marci was athletic. An avid volleyball player, the fairskinned blond spent hours outside playing her favorite sport and getting well-tanned at the same time. At age 21, she noticed a mole on her back that had changed. She went to see Dr. Tina Hieken, and she was diagnosed with skin cancer. In 1993 she had a melanoma removed from her back. Today, says Dr. Hieken, a surgical oncologist from Skokie, Illinois, “Marci doesn’t go out into the sun in the middle of the day, she wears a T-shirt when she plays volleyball, and unlike the time prior to her diagnosis, she wears sunscreen.”
Marci has had no recurrence of skin cancer in the last five years, but as Dr. Hieken points out, her case is evidence that “we are seeing skin cancers developing at an earlier and earlier age; it is not just a disease of the middle-aged and elderly anymore.”
Whether you sunbathe, are athletic, or get a little brown just being outside, you are at risk. “There is no such thing as a safe tan. Even a healthy-looking tan is the result of the skin attempting to repair itself,” says Dr. Alan Moshell of the National Institutes of Health.
You’ve probably heard someone say, “I never burn; I just tan right away, so I don’t have to worry about skin cancer.” Whether you turn pink, red, or brown, you are at risk. When ultraviolet radiation from the sun hits your skin, your body knows it is being injured. It then produces melanin (a dark pigment that the skin cells produce) to act as the body’s natural sunscreen, and a defense mechanism to block out harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays. A tan is a sign of skin damage.
Another myth about tanning is that as long as you build up your exposure to the sun gradually, you won’t do any damage. As soon as you are out in the sun, the damage starts. And, according to Dr. Hieken, that length of exposure, especially during adolescence on, can lead to skin cancers.
And what about cloudy days? Or the fact that you aren’t sunbathing, you’re just mowing the lawn or walking to the bus stop? More myth. You can burn on cloudy days, too. And no matter what you are doing in the sun, it is still blasting your skin with ultraviolet rays.
The ABCs of UVs
Our ancestors gravitated to the sun for warmth. It makes us feel good to see a bright blue sunny sky. What makes the rays from this wondrous star so dangerous? Think for a minute about what a powerful ball of light and energy the sun is: It can fade a carpet, dry out the earth to parched dust, and heat our homes. That’s pretty strong stuff, and it’s all that ultraviolet light that also tans and burns our bodies. There a re two basic types that reach the surface of the earth:
UVB–the sun’s burning rays (blocked by glass); primary cause of sunburn and skin cancer
UVA–(pass through glass); penetrate skin deeper, cause premature wrinkles, and contribute to skin cancer
How can you be outdoors and avoid the harmful rays of the sun? There are many effective ways to protect yourself from the sun, according to the American Cancer Society:
* Stay out of the sun when it is most intense–between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
* Wear wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, and dry, tightly woven clothing (loose weaves will let sun come through, and wet T-shirts lose their protectiveness).
* Be aware of the reflective power of the sun: It’s stronger than direct sunlight. Snow, sand, concrete, and glass can reflect harmful radiation. And sitting in the shade isn’t always enough. The sun can find you. (See “Those Sneaky, Snaky Rays,” page 15.)
* Summer isn’t the only time to worry. The sun can be harmful in the cold weather, too–especially if you are skiing or living in higher elevations where the thinner air doesn’t absorb as much UV light and allows more of the harmful rays to come through.
Rubbing It In
Wearing sunscreen when you are outdoors will also protect you from the sun’s harmful rays. Sunscreens contain a chemical that absorbs ultraviolet light to protect our skin (like the melanin in our body does). The amount of protection a sunscreen provides is indicated by its sun protection factor (SPF). SPFs range from 2 to 50–the number being part of the formula that tells you how long you can be out in the sun before you burn. (An SPF of 15 means that if you would normally burn in 10 minutes, with sunscreen applied you can stay in the sun 15 times longer before burning–150 minutes.)
For most people, a cream, lotion, or spray sunscreen with an SPF of 15 is adequate. Those people with very fair skin, red or blond hair, and freckles may benefit from a higher SPF. Here are some tips on making the most of sunscreens:
* Apply liberally and evenly.
* Put it on 20 to 30 minutes before you go outdoors.
* Avoid getting it in your eyes.
* Pay special attention to easily burned areas–your ears, neck, chest, tops of your feet, nose, and tops of your legs.
* Lips and your nose often need extra protection–a zinc oxide product is now available in funky fluorescent colors.
* Reapply sunscreen every two to four hours, especially after excessive sweating or toweling off.
* If you are taking antibiotics, you may be more susceptible to the sun’s rays. Apply sunscreen generously. Check with your doctor about the effect of other medications on sun sensitivity.
* If you develop a rash after using a sunscreen, try another product. Some contain the chemical PABA, which can cause allergic reactions in some people.
When choosing a sunscreen, Dr. Hieken tells patients to “find one that has a fragrance and feel you like, choose an SPF 15 unless you are very sensitive to the sun, and reapply.” “Some products,” she adds, “claim to be `supersport blocks’ and tell you that you don’t need to reapply–but do it anyway.”
Some cosmetic products on the market today claim to be sunscreens or contain sunscreen. If a product says it contains sunscreen, it may only be a small amount (SPF 2 to 4)–not enough to protect your skin. To be safe, the label on these products should say they have an SPF of 15.
On the Fair Side
For years Hollywood made it fashionable to sport a dark tan. But look at the covers of some current magazines–stars are opting for the fair, healthy look.
There are tempting options for a “safe” tan, but don’t be fooled. Tanning booths and sunlamps both produce harmful rays, and tanning pills have side effects. Some of the high-quality tanning creams that actually color the skin may be safe, but you need to exercise caution when using any product that contains dye.
The American Academy of Dermatology points out that sunburns you get during adolescence and through age 20 greatly increase your risk of developing skin cancer. Researchers say that 80 percent of skin cancers could be prevented by using adequate sun protection.
When you are tempted to go out in the sun unprotected, consider this scenario: If you saw someone out on a frigid day without a coat, you’d tell him to cover up before he freezes! Think of covering up from the sun in the same way–but this time, before you burn.