To Fight Skin Cancer This Summer, Sun Lovers Will Have to Take Precautions
These days, people are spending more time outdoors for sun, sport and recreation—at precisely a time when depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer (caused by the release of chlorofluorocarbons [CFCs] from aerosols, refrigerators and air-conditioners) is putting us at greater and greater risk of sun damage.
Indeed, every one percent decrease in ozone means a corresponding two percent increase in the amount of ultraviolet radiation bathing our skin, and a four percent increase in skin cancer. In Australia, where the ozone layer is extremely thin, the rate of skin cancer is the highest in the world—10 times higher than in Britain, for instance. With the signing of the Montreal Protocol in 1987, ozone-destroying chemicals are being phased out worldwide, though the process of rebuilding the ozone layer could take as long as 50 years.
So fun in the sun isn’t what it used to be. A 1994 report issued by Connecticut’s Department of Public Health found epidemic levels of melanoma, the most serious (and potentially fatal) form of skin cancer, concentrated in towns with a Long Island Sound shoreline or lake frontage. These findings are being mirrored around the country.
In 1989, the National Institutes of Health announced that no type or degree of tanning is safe. Study after study has demonstrated that exposure to the sun and tanning devices increases the risk of skin cancer, cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye) and macular degeneration (a deterioration of retinal cells that causes a loss of the central field of vision). The sun is also responsible for immune system suppression which can make us more susceptible to cancer and infections. Other less severe, yet undesirable effects of the sun are wrinkling of the skin, sunstroke, photoallergies and photosensitivity.
The American Cancer Society estimates that 34,100 cases of melanoma will be diagnosed this year, and that 7,200 people will die of it. Another 100,000 people will be diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma, and 2,000 will die of it. Approximately 400,000 people are affected by basal cell carcinoma each year and, although they will not die from this cancer, if left untreated they can suffer damage to underlying tissues, which can lead to disfigurement or loss of organ function.
Since the 1930s, the global incidence of skin cancer has been increasing by 4.2 percent a year. Back then, the risk of developing malignant melanoma was one in 1,500. Now it’s one in 128. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, at such rates of increase, the risk will become one in 90 by the year 2000.
Who’s At Risk?
People with fair skin and light eyes who burn easily are at greatest risk, but dark-skinned and brown-eyed people are also at risk of developing sun-related health problems. A coalition of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and The National Weather Service urges everyone—even people who have black skin or who tan and never burn—to protect themselves from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation.
Children, whose skin is sensitive and still growing, are especially at risk. And, in fact, the average child receives three times the annual ultraviolet exposure of the average adult, and one in 10 will develop skin cancer before age 18. Research has demonstrated that one blistering sunburn in childhood doubles our risk of developing melanoma in later years. Using an SPF of 15 during the first 18 years of life could reduce the lifetime risk of developing this cancer by 78 percent.
All forms of skin cancer are highly curable when discovered and treated in their early stages. Common areas where skin cancers are found include the face, lips, ears, hands, forearms and back of the neck. Perform regular self-examinations and consult a dermatologist immediately if you discover any of the following signs: An existing pimple, growth, small sore, or other lesion that hasn’t healed, is getting larger, looks irritated, itches, scabs or bleeds;
A shiny bump on the skin, often with a pearly center that may ooze and crust;
A red, scaly, sharply outlined patch of skin, or pink, raised nodules;
A mole or spot which is asymmetrical, or has an irregular border, scalloped or poorly circumscribed; or is varied in color (tan and brown, black, sometimes white, red or blue).
Protecting yourself against the harmful effects of the sun won’t require you to give up outdoor activities, but it does mean a constant effort to limit exposure: Wear a sunscreen every day on your face and neck as a moisturizer. Even if the weather is hazy or cold, use sunscreen on all exposed skin when you will be in the sun for 15 minutes or longer. Remember that sun exposure is cumulative. In fact, such mundane activities as going to and from lunch, doing errands, walking the dog, or sitting by the window at work or in the car (because glass blocks out only some of the ultra-violet radiation), add up to 80 percent of lifetime sun exposure.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that everyone use a sunscreen with a “sun protection factor,” or SPF, of 15 or more. Included on the foundation’s list of over 200 approved sunscreens are: Johnson & Johnson’s Sunblock (SPF 30+), Ban de Soleil All-Day Waterproof Sunblock (SPF 15 and 30), Banana Boat Ultra 30 Super Sunblock, and Coppertone Sunblock Lotion (SPF 15 and 30). An environmental alternative (all-natural, no animal testing) is Aubrey Organics’ Green Tea Hand and Body Lotion With Evening Primrose (SPF 15) for adults, and the companion Green Tea Sunblock for Children (SPF 25).
Be generous with sunscreen and reapply it every two hours and after swimming or perspiring heavily. Consider using an additional thick dab of physical sunscreen (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) on vulnerable areas such as the nose, ears and back of the neck. Whenever possible, wear long-sleeved shirts and long pants made of lightweight but tightly-woven fabrics. Put on a wide brim hat which can offer good protection for head, forehead and back of neck. Wear sunglasses when you feel the need to squint and especially during midday summer sun, when driving on a glary day, while skiing, and when exposed to the sun for extended periods of time. Good sunglasses can cost less than $15 but they must have an American National Standards Institute label reading “Meets ANSI Z80.3 requirements.” Never use a tanning bed, booth, lamp or any other kind of indoor tanning device. Children are in special need of protection. Sunscreens are not recommended for babies under six months old, so they should be protected by a tightly woven umbrella and dressed in lightweight clothes and a hat. Try to limit trips to the beach or other sunny excursions. For kids over six months, use a sunscreen with SPF of at least 15 that does not contain PABA (which can be irritating to children’s skin) or a fragrance that can attract insects. Creamy sunscreens tend to work better for young children because they are less drying, more easily applied and stay on longer. Apply 15 to 30 minutes before exposure and every two hours afterward. Use waterproof sunscreen if your child is spending any time in the water and reapply after swimming.
Just because you’ve burned in the past, it’s never too late to protect yourself from further sun damage. In fact, dermatologists are now discovering t
hat protection from the sun—either through use of sunscreens or staying out of the sun altogether—may allow the skin to regenerate collagen and elastin, making the skin smoother and more supple. When the summer sun is shining, caution is advised.