by Eileen West, MD, FACP
Recently, I went to see my dermatologist, and she noticed a small area on my leg which didn’t look right. She did a shave biopsy. It turned out to be a skin cancer lesion known as basal cell carcinoma. She was able to treat it with cryotherapy (or freezing) the area close to the skin lesion. This experience brought reality closer to home. All those years spent trying to tan my Irish/British skin had more consequences than simply lots of freckles.
We now understand the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation much better than we used to. July has been designated Ultraviolet (UV) Safety Awareness month. This July, I would like to share ten tips on how to stay safe in the summer sun. Many of these may be familiar, while others may not. (If you are interested in a more in-depth discussion, tune in for a Facebook Live conversation July 20 with dermatologist Lina Naga, MD here ).
- Use the right SPF sunscreen: Use sunscreen of at LEAST SPF 15 any time you are outdoors, regardless of skin type. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends using sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher, broad-spectrum (UVA/UVB) protection, and water resistance. SPF of 15 protects against sunburn but does not protect against skin cancer or aging (SPF 30+ is needed for that).
- Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen: There are two types of UV light that can harm your skin — UVA and UVB. UVA rays can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkling and age spots. UVB rays can burn your skin. Too much exposure to UVA or UVB rays can cause skin cancer. A broad-spectrum sunscreen protects you from both. Don’t be fooled by a cloudy day. Up to 80% of the sun’s UV rays can make it through the clouds and damage your skin!
- Choose a mineral based sunscreen: Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays whereas mineral sunscreens reflect the harmful UV rays. “Mineral/physical sunscreens are preferred as they work immediately after application, don’t contain harmful ingredients, are safe for the environment, and tend to be less harsh on the skin,” says Dr. Naga.
- Beware of sunscreen products which contain benzene: Benzene is a known carcinogen. Exposures in concentrations less than 1 part per million (ppm) is still associated with the development of blood cancer, specifically leukemia. In May, 2021 a pharmacy quality monitoring company called Valisure identified benzene in problematic concentrations in 78 commonly used sunscreen and after-sun products. Look at Valisure’s published list of contaminated sunscreens to cross-reference your products with the recalled ones.
- Don’t forget the lips! Apply a lip balm with SPF 30 or higher to your lip to protect them from sunburn and skin cancer, including two of the most common ones – basal and squamous cell carcinoma.
- Sunscreen alone isn’t enough: Sunscreen should be used in conjunction with other sun protection measures like wearing hats, sunglasses, covering up when outdoors using UVF-blocking clothes and avoiding direct sunlight between 10:00AM and 2:00PM. Be sure to apply enough sunscreen (around ¼ cup for the whole body). Most people don’t. Re-apply at least every two to three hours, more often if you have been sweating, swimming, or rubbing your skin with a towel.
- Make sunglasses an essential accessory: Check the UV rating on the label when buying new glasses. Darker lenses are not necessarily better at blocking UV rays. It also helps to wear sunglasses that fit close to your face or have wraparound frames.
- Check your meds: Many medications can make you more sensitive to sunlight and cause your skin to burn more easily. Check this list of common medications that can make you more sensitive to the sun and be sure to find alternatives if possible – Photosensitivity Report Medications.
- See your doctor: If you develop a sunburn which is blistering and covers a sizable portion of your body, results in blisters on the face, hands, or genitals, is causing severe swelling, shows signs of infection, such as pain, pus or red streaks leading away from an open blister, or does not improve within a few days, see your doctor. Do not attempt to treat it yourself!
- Drink lots of water: Hydration is especially important on hot, sunny days spent outdoors. You will get dehydrated faster than you think, so stay hydrated more than you feel you might need!
Finally, I want to make an important note about tanning and sunbathing. The concept of a base tan is a myth, providing only the equivalent protection of an SPF 3 or 4 sunblock. No amount of tanning will ever actually change your skin tone. All those days spent working on the “perfect tan” will more likely lead to premature aging, wrinkles, or worse.
So, this summer why not embrace your natural skin tone? Better to love your skin this season and all year long by taking steps to protect it. You may be interested in this personal story, A Tan Is Not a Sign of Health by Sharon McKenna, a melanoma survivor, to learn more about the dangers of tanning and how to be happy in your own skin. Stay safe and enjoy your summer!