Today is the beginning of Memorial Day weekend and the summer holiday season. It’s a day to remember to enjoy your fried chicken, while not frying your skin. (OK, fried chicken isn’t exactly healthy for you, but it is fun once in a while. Frying your skin is never healthy nor fun).
It is also Don’t Fry Day, an annual reminder of the need to be sun safe while we enjoy the outdoors during the summer months. [more]
Don’t Fry Day is a concept led by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention and its many collaborating organizations including the American Cancer Society. The messages from the Council are simple and straightforward, and we would all do well to heed the warnings:
- Do Not Burn or Tan
- Seek Shade
- Wear Sun-Protective Clothing
- Generously Apply Sunscreen
- Use Extra Caution Near Water, Snow, and Sand
- Get Vitamin D Safely
Simple messages that will help protect you from the ravages of the sun. And it’s not all about just skin cancer. It is also about the cumulative damage that is done to the skin over time from chronic sun exposure. Aging ain’t pretty, as some people find out when they view their skin through special cameras that can highlight the damaging effects of the sun.
You want to stay looking younger and healthier, and reduce the wrinkles of aging? Then try to be smart about being in the sun. You can limit that damage if you just use some common sense and avoid the traps. Do not think that being tan is a sign of health. It isn’t. It’s a sign of disease. It is a sign that the body is trying to defend itself against the damage from the UV rays produced by the sun. And too much damage over too much time can lead to skin cancers.
Skin cancer primarily affects older people, but is not unheard of in younger folks. The somewhat good news is that most skin cancers can be treated effectively. However, for some people skin cancer is not so simple. There are those who develop melanoma, which can be life threatening and must be taken seriously. Squamous and basal cell skin cancers can usually be treated effectively with surgery, as mine was. But once you have one, the chances are higher that you will have more. And for some people, skin cancers can require extensive surgery and even plastic surgery to get all of the cancer out and cover the surgical defect that is left behind. And then there are those where surgery is much more difficult, or where the cancer is more aggressive and can in fact lead to death.
This year is actually a special milestone when it comes to skin cancer protection. Thanks to some relatively new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration, we now have clear markings on sunscreens to let you know what is actually in the bottle or tube, and whether that product has a good chance of working to protect you.
You should be looking for a broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. You should be looking for a product that is at least an SPF 15, but should probably use SPF 30 or higher. You won’t find an approved product of SPF over 50, since we don’t know that that really makes a difference. You will see clear labeling on whether a product is really water/sweat resistant, with instructions on how often to reapply the product. For now, the FDA does not regulate sprays, since they haven’t measured their safety and effectiveness. For those who prefer the spray products, you should know that the rules to “govern” their use have not been proposed yet. So it is a matter of “caveat emptor” when it comes to the sunscreens in a spray product.
Understanding how to use sunscreen is really key to getting its benefit. Most people don’t use sunscreens the right way. They don’t use enough (“gobs of sunscreen” is a good idea; a palmful is another measure). They don’t use SPF 15 or higher (30 is preferable as noted above). They don’t reapply after sweating or going in the water.
There are some other prevention suggestions as well:
Put on a shirt with a sun resistant fabric. (There are now industry promoted measures to tell you how sun resistant a fabric is). Wear a broad brimmed hat. Use UV protective eyewear. Watch out for the rays of the sun that reflect off the water. Avoid peak sun hours of 10AM to 4PM.
But most importantly: don’t think that sunscreen is the complete answer. There is research that has shown that people put on sunscreen and think they can stay out forever in the sun. And then they get burned literally and figuratively. You cannot rely on sunscreen to extend your day in the sun. So seek the shade: relax under a tree that provides shade. Use a beach umbrella or what my wife and I call a “Tiki hut” which is one of those thatched huts you sometimes see, especially on resort beaches. And, don’t seek the sun for vitamin D. As the suggestions above note, use oral supplements to get vitamin D. They are inexpensive, readily available, and a heck of a lot safer and more comfortable than a sunburn.
Last year, the Centers for Disease Control published studies that showed Americans aren’t getting the message. They are getting burned at an alarming rate, significantly increasing their risk of skin cancer in the process. Maybe this summer you will listen to what the experts are saying: enjoy the outdoors, but be safe in the sun. Pay attention to the rules of sun-safe behavior, and pay attention to the UV index. Know the limits of sunscreen, and don’t overdo it.
Yes, Virginia, you can enjoy the outdoors. You can go to the beach. You can take a walk in the park. Just be careful how you do it and don’t overdo it. Be sensible, be safe.
This year is different for me, because this year, I head into summer as a skin cancer survivor. You don’t have to be like me. You can be smarter, safer, and do the right thing by your skin. And your skin will thank you for it when you don’t get wrinkles, and when you don’t need surgery for skin cancer. By doing some simple things simply, you can enjoy the outdoors and not get burned by it.
Sounds like reasonable advice to me. It’s advice I wish I’d heeded myself growing up, but we didn’t have sunscreens nor did we understand the dangers of tanning and burning. You know more today than I did then, so do what you know. I never had that opportunity.
So, enjoy but be safe!