Too much fun in the sun isn’t fun at all

Think about the years before wearing seat belts in automobiles was mandatory. Thousands of U.S. adults and children got seriously hurt or killed every year in car accidents, but that wasn’t enough to change behaviors. Safety officials and physicians advised people to install and use these restraints, and national legislation requiring mandatory seat belt installation in cars was passed in 1968. Still, it took until 1984 before the first state laws were passed requiring people to actually wear the belts. But thousands more died, unnecessarily, before seat belt use became commonplace.

Now, think about skin cancer, the most common form of cancer in the United States.  Each year, over 5.4 million cases of non-melanoma skin cancer are treated in more than 3.3 million people, and 90 percent of them are the result of exposure to UV radiation. In fact, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour (most often from melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer).  And if that isn’t sobering enough, contemplate the economic reality: The annual cost of treating U.S. skin cancer cases is estimated at $8.1 billion.

There certainly aren’t any laws requiring that we protect ourselves, but are we paying attention yet? Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled, and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

How to protect ourselves from excess UV exposure

The best way to lower our risk of developing skin cancer is to protect our skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun help reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, we can’t rely too much on sunscreen alone. Sunscreen and hats are helpful for reducing exposure, but not an excuse to increase the amount of time we spend in the sun. Even with the use of sunscreens, people should not stay out too long during peak sunlight hours; UV rays can still penetrate our clothes and skin and do harm.

If possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect us from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days. Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection. Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

When and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.

 

Here are additional safety tips for protection from harmful UV radiation:

  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes we burn more quickly.

We all need the vitamins from the sun and can still enjoy the outdoors, but taking proper precautions allows us to be outdoors more safely, year round, and to reduce the risks of developing skin cancers and other skin-related diseases. As the old seat belt commercials used to tell us, “Don’t become a statistic.” Whether applying to car seats, consumption of tobacco products, or sun exposure, that’s sound advice for us and our children.

###

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!