Safe fun in the sun

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the world, and, with cases still on the rise, we need to do more to protect the body’s largest organ year-round.

According to the nonprofit Skin Cancer Foundation, more people in the United States are diagnosed with skin cancer than all other countries combined.  One out of five Americans is expected to develop the disease by age 70.

From 1994 to 2014, we saw a 77% jump in nonmelanoma skin cancers. In terms of invasive melanomas — the deadliest form of skin cancer — annual diagnoses jumped 54 percent from 2008 to ’19. Moreover, there is an increase in thin melanomas particularly in younger women.

Prevention — in particular limiting sun exposure — could put a significant dent into such statistics.

The Skin Cancer Foundation states that 90% of nonmelanomas — including the more common basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas — are linked to the sun’s rays. For melanomas, 95% are related to UV exposure, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer lists the sun’s radiation as a “Group 1” cancer agent — alongside plutonium and cigarettes. If we can block those rays, we can help prevent skin cancer.

Effective use of sunscreen — as well as an awareness of its limitations — plays an important role. People need to apply sunscreen mindfully. In some cases, people may think that they have taken the appropriate steps to protect themselves but may indeed still be at risk.”

With that in mind, I offer the following mythbusters:

Just a dab will do you: Unfortunately, most people don’t use nearly enough. Adults need at least an ounce — think a shot glass full — for total-body coverage. In terms of spray sunscreens, their effectiveness remains a question because it’s hard for the user to gauge how much is actually being applied.

Once is enough: We can’t apply and then head out for the day. We need to carry our sunscreen with us for re-application every two hours — and more often if there’s water or sweat involved.

If it feels good, use it: Customer reviews touting “feel” or “absorption” should not guide our choice. An analysis of Amazon faves found that 40% missed the mark in terms of meeting the American Academy of Dermatology’s recommendations, which are really what we need to heed — namely, a product that is at least 30 SPF, provides broad-spectrum’protection from both UVA and UVB radiation, and is water/sweat- resistant. If those three bases are covered, then options such as chemical-based products (which absorb the sun) versus mineral-based sunscreens (which physically block rays) are a matter of preference.  

Sunscreen is all you need: No level of SPF can completely block the sun. It’s important to remember, especially during the peak hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., that sunscreen alone is not enough. Additional protection — a hat, sunglasses, cover-ups — is also needed. And, if possible, we should simply get out of the sun when its rays are most intense. 

When summer’s over, we can put the sunscreen away: Colder temps can obscure the fact that the sun’s rays are still doing damage. Cold-weather factors such as snow can actually reflect and intensify the sun. We should build sunscreen into our daily routine so that it becomes a 365-day habit.

As we support cancer patients and search for cures, let’s also make sure we’re taking steps to protect ourselves from the most common form of the disease.

Richard Torbeck, M.D., is a board-certified and fellowship-trained dermatologist specializing in Mohs micrographic surgery for skin cancer and cosmetic dermatology at Advanced Dermatology P.C. and the Center for Laser and Cosmetic Surgery (New York & New Jersey). For more, visit advanceddermatologypc.com.

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