Did you know that over that past three decades, more people have been diagnosed with skin cancer than all other cancers combined? In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. Skin cancer is widely regarded to be one of the most preventable cancers, and in the hopes of helping to lower these staggering numbers, I'd like to discuss tips for understanding sun protection products and sun safety.
Sun Damage 101
The sun emits energy over a broad spectrum of wavelength. There's the visible light that we see, infrared radiation that we feel as heat, and ultraviolet (UV) radiation that we can't see or feel. Most skin cancer, and up to 90% of the visible signs of aging are caused by two types of UV rays:
UVB Rays: These "burning" rays are responsible for your tan, but also your sunburn and cancer risk. These UVB rays also go through windows despite weather conditions. Even if it's cloudy, up to 80% of the rays still penetrate through, leaving you potentially exposed. Although both types of UV rays are responsible for different health risks, they're both harmful to your skin.
UVA Rays: Known sometimes as the "aging" rays, these are less likely to cause sunburns than UVB rays, but are no less dangerous, as they penetrate skin more deeply. UVA rays can go through office or car windows and even lightweight clothing. Prolonged exposure to UVA rays breaks down skin's collagen and elastin, which is why UVA rays are considered to be the culprit for signs of photoaging including: wrinkles, saggy and leathery skin, and suns spots.
Photoaging vs. Chronological Aging
Photoaging, derived from the Greek "phos" which means "light", deals with the premature aging of the skin caused by repeated exposure to UV radiation from the sun and/or artificial UV sources, such as tanning beds. Photoaging is different from chronological aging, as the damaging effects of UV rays from the sun can actually alter the normal structures of the skin. Skin may repair many of the mutations caused by UV rays, but if the damage is too great, the affected cells may die. Often times, the skin is not fully repaired and mutations occur, resulting in premature aging and even skin cancer.
Early Signs of Photoaging:
Sun Protection - What to Know Before You Buy
- Spider veins/broken blood vessels on the nose, cheeks, and neck.
- Taut lips that start to lose some color and fullness and definition.
- Various pigmented spots, such as freckles, solar lentigines (known as age or liver spots).
- Wrinkles around the eyes and mouth increase in number and become deep creases.
- Skin on sun-exposed sites may bruise more easily.
- Red, rough scaly spots, called actinic (sun-related) keratoses, may appear. These may be pre-cancerous and require treatment for this reason.
Sun Safety Tips
- Look for sun protection products that are labeled "Broad Spectrum". This helps to ensure that you'll be protected from both the aging and burning rays (UVA & UVB).
- The FDA recommends wearing a broad spectrum SPF 15 or higher.
- SPF 50+ doesn't mean more protection. There is not sufficient data to show that products with SPF values higher than 50 provide greater protection.
- Use a "water resistant" sunscreen if swimming or sweating. Consumers should be aware that no sunscreens are "waterproof", because all sunscreens eventually wash off.
- Sunscreens labeled "water resistant" are required to state how long the sunscreen remains effective when swimming or sweating (typically 40-80 minutes, but check the label).
- Reapply sunscreen, even if it is labeled as water resistant, at least every 2 hours.
- Try to limit time in the sun, especially between the hours of 10 AM and 2 PM when the sun's rays are the strongest.
- Wear clothing to cover exposed skin (long-sleeved shirts, pants, sunglasses, and broad-brimmed hats) when possible.
- Even if it's cloudy or you're indoors, the UV rays can still reach you. Wear your broad-spectrum sun protection product each day.