Nothing makes us feel more alive than the sun. Its brightness beckons us to come outside and play. Its rays warm our skin. Its energy promotes life on earth.
But the sun can also be a real killer.
“At 35, I had to treat skin cancer because of damage done under the age of 18,” says Kate Bohmer, a mom of three from Moorhead. “It is our responsibility to teach our kids to protect themselves from harmful rays just as we teach them about cancer from smoking.”
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that more than 3.5 million skin cancers in over two million people are diagnosed annually. And one in five of us will develop skin cancer in our lifetime.
The most vicious form of skin cancer is melanoma. It is not the most common skin cancer, but it is the most deadly, killing more than 8,700 people in the U.S. annually. Melanomas look like moles and some develop from moles, which is why they can be hard to detect. The only way to diagnose melanoma is a biopsy. That’s when part of the mole is removed and the tissue examined for cancer cells. If caught early on, melanoma is often curable. Sun exposure is a big risk factor for skin cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also identifies risk factors like skin that burns easily or a large number of moles as playing a role in whether melanoma forms.
Apart from staying out of the sun, sunscreen is still widely considered the best way to avoid exposure to the sun’s power, even though the NCI says its effectiveness hasn’t been proven.
The more we learn about the sun, the more our sun protection practices have to change. For example, for years scientists told us that we only had to worry about the sun’s shortwave (UVB) rays. So we rubbed on gobs of sunscreen that swore to protect us from the sun’s harmful UVB rays. Now we’re learning that the sun’s longwave (UVA) rays are dangerous, too, so our sun care protection routine is evolving again.
The Sunscreen Wars
Tinosorb S. Mexoryl SX. Tinosorb M. Never heard of these, right? What about zinc oxide? Or oxybenzone? Or PABA? Sound a little more familiar? Both sets are active ingredients in sunscreen. We can only get the second batch in America, even though many experts agree the first batch is more effective.
What’s the problem? Apparently, there is a holdup in the Food and Drug Administration’s approval process. A 2013 Wall Street Journal article examined the delay and uncovered that eight sunscreen ingredient applications have been pending for years, some as long as a decade. Those same eight ingredients have been available for more than five years in Europe, Canada, South America, Asia, and Mexico. The FDA hasn’t added to its list of approved ingredients for sunscreens for nearly 15 years.
“The process to get approval for ‘better’ sunscreen ingredients has been dragging on for a while now,” explains Katie Ohnstad, Clinic Coordinator and Marketing Assistant at Rejuv Skin and Laser Clinic in South Fargo. “It will be interesting to see what their findings are.”
The FDA tried to remedy the situation by overhauling its labeling guidelines in 2011. Sunscreens that meet FDA standards for both UVB and UVA protection may be labeled “broad-spectrum.” Additionally, any sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) lower than 15 must state that it will not protect against skin cancers on its label. Gone are the days of claiming to be waterproof, too. Sunscreens can only be labeled water-resistant and must include a 40- or 80-minute reapplication warning.
Sunscreen comes in two types: mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreen reflects UV rays, whereas chemical sunscreen absorbs the rays. Clinicians say you may need to try both to determine which type works best for you. If you experience any skin irritation like a rash, bumps, or itchiness, try a different type or brand of sunscreen. Always check the expiration date, too! If your sunscreen is expired, it simply won’t work.
There is no telling how long before we’ll get stateside access to the sunscreens made with Tinosorb S., Mexoryl SX (sometimes called ecamsule), and Tinosorb M. Some people have been able to purchase the products on the Internet.
Practice Safe Sun
What we do know is this: Wearing sunscreen at any age is a must. There are other guidelines you should follow, too. Here’s a breakdown by age of sun-safe practices for you and your family.
Babies and Toddlers
These are among the most critical years for sun protection. “The big idea is that there are serious consequences to not properly preparing your child to be protected from the harmful rays,” says Bohmer.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping babies younger than 6 months out of the sun. This is the time to dress your baby or child in lightweight long sleeve shirts and pants. When it’s too hot for clothes and only a bathing suit will do, slather on sunscreen with an SPF no less than 15 for babies 6 months and older. Be cautious of chemicals like PABA and oxybenzone that can irritate children’s skin. Ingredients like zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and other mineral-based products might be better tolerated. Try to stay out of the sun during peak afternoon hours. You want to start laying the groundwork for good sun protection habits now because the next decade may prove if your efforts have been worth it.
Tween and Teens
The Skin Cancer Foundation states that 90 percent of pediatric melanoma cases occur in patients aged 10 to 19. Using broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher should be part of your daily routine, even in the winter. Use lotion sunscreen generously.
“Most people apply too little and don’t reap the benefits of the SPF listed on the bottle,” says Rejuv’s Ohnstad. “As a rule of thumb, use about a shot glass full of sunscreen to cover your entire body.”
During periods of heavy activity, it’s important to remember to reapply sunscreen regularly. If you don’t like lotion, there are plenty of spray sunscreens available; some even have a cooling sensation. And—for goodness sake—stay out of tanning salons (unless you’re going for a spray tan).
20s and 30s
These are the prevention decades. If you haven’t already established a sun protection protocol, you better start now. Melanoma rates are twice as high in women before age 40. Dermatologists believe that sunblock is the single most important tool in preventing sun damage that leads to fine lines and wrinkles, too. You can find plenty of face moisturizers with built-in sunscreen, but many dermatologists recommend using a regular sunscreen on top of your moisturizer. Don’t ignore your hands, neck, and decolletage. The skin there is normally more exposed than other parts of your body and will show signs of damage earlier. “A big mistake many people make is forgetting about their lips—ouch!” exclaims Ohnstad. “Make sure you have a lip balm with SPF to protect your lips as well.”
For the truly serious, never go out in the sun without a hat. You’ll want to start checking your body for moles or strange colored spots. NCI recommends following the “ABCDE” approach to help you identify anything suspicious:
- Asymmetry—Are the halves two different shapes?
- Border irregularity—Edges are ragged or blurred
- Color—Uneven blacks, blues, reds, browns, greys, or white
- Diameter—Has the mole grown? Is it larger than a pea?
- Evolving—The mole has changed over the last few weeks or months
Take a picture if you’re concerned and make an appointment with your physician. Discuss the picture and any changes listed above. Your doctor may then refer you for a biopsy.
40s and 50s
This is when you’ll start to see the effects of your earlier sun care routine, or lack thereof. Sun damage like discoloration or miasma (a brownish-grayish patch) will appear. Visit a dermatologist or examine your skin for moles or oddly shaped or colored freckles. If you haven’t already done so, bump up your SPF from 15 to 30. Laser resurfacing, freezing, or electrofulguration (burning) may be an option if you’ve developed sun spots from sun damage. However, if you regularly go out in the sun without sunscreen, sun spots will continue to come back and your risk of developing skin cancer will increase. After 40, melanoma rates are higher in men than in women.
Visiting a dermatologist once a year should be routine by now. You’ll want a doctor to help you keep track of any moles or other skin damage so they can document changes and help prescribe a course of treatment. It’s not too late to use sunscreen, either. If mobility and/or flexibility is an issue as you age, spray sunscreens may be a better option for you. There is less twisting and turning to apply a spray than a lotion, so you’ll be better covered by a spray. The incidence of melanoma in men age 80 and older is three times higher than women of the same age.
No matter what your age, before you step outside into that warm, delightful, and energizing sun, remember your SPF. Your skin will thank you.
Patricia Carlson is a freelance writer from Dilworth whose work regularly appears in publications across the country. She also crafts strategic website and marketing content for small businesses. Check out her work at www.patriciacarlsonfreelance.com.
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