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Sun Smarts

It’s hard to believe that something so welcoming as the sun could prove dangerous. But it’s true: The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays are a major cause of skin cancer.

Anyone can get skin cancer. Close to 5 million people are treated for it every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Fortunately, most skin cancers can be prevented. And that means it’s important that you and everyone in your family—from little ones to older ones—take steps to protect themselves against the sun’s harmful rays.

The negative ways of UV rays
Two types of ultraviolet (UV rays) that can cause skin cancer get through the ozone layer:

  • UVA rays, which can prematurely age your skin, causing wrinkles and age spots. They are the most common type of sun exposure.
  • UVB rays, which are more intense than UVA rays and are the primary cause of sunburn.

Q: How do both of these types of rays damage your skin?
A: Your skin’s outermost layer contains a pigment called melanin, which helps protect your skin. You can see it working when your skin darkens. Tanning is the first sign of skin damage. Too much sun exposure lets UV rays penetrate deep into your skin’s inner layers. This results in sunburn, and it can cause skin cells to die, become damaged or develop skin cancer.

In addition to skin cancer, excessive sun exposure can lead to:

Skin changes like freckles or moles. These can later turn into skin cancer.

Premature aging. Signs include wrinkled, tight or leathery skin, and dark spots.

Weakened immune system. When your skin gets burned, white blood cells rush to the area to repair the damage. This can weaken your immune system in other areas of your body.

Eye damage. The damage from UV rays can lead to cataracts and blindness later in life.

Basic sun-safety precautions

To protect yourself from the sun, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends that you:

Seek shade. This is especially crucial when the sun’s rays are the strongest, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Wear sun-protective clothing and sunglasses. Choose a lightweight, long-sleeved shirt, long pants, and a hat with a wide brim that shades your face and the back of your neck. Buy sunglasses that offer UV protection.

Use sunscreen. Look for a sunscreen with broad-spectrum—UVA and UVB—protection. Apply it to all areas of your body that aren’t protected by clothing. Choose a sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating.

Be extra careful near water, sand or snow. All three of these reflect sunlight and can raise your risk for sunburn.

Avoid tanning beds. Their UV light is not safer than the sun.

Check your skin regularly for potential sun damage. See your primary care provider if you notice any new or suspicious spots. Or if any spots are changing, itching or bleeding.

Know if you’re extra-sensitive to the sun. Some medicines can cause sensitivity to sunlight. These can include oral contraceptives, antibiotics, and even pain medicines like ibuprofen and naproxen. Be extra cautious if you’re taking a medicine that increases your risk for a sunburn.

Special advice for special people

While all members of your family need to guard against the sun, some are particularly vulnerable to getting burned. Those include:

Babies. According to the AAD, babies younger than 6 months should never be exposed to the sun’s rays. Keep your baby in the shade as much as possible. Dress them in long sleeves, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. Don’t let them get overheated, and make sure they get plenty of fluids. Take your baby inside if they develop any redness on exposed skin.

Don’t use sunscreen on babies 6 months or younger. For older babies and toddlers, use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. You may want to look for sunscreen made especially for this age group.

Children. You should take care to reapply sunscreen on your children’s exposed skin every two hours or after they’ve been swimming or sweating. It only takes one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence to double their chances of developing melanoma—the most dangerous skin cancer—in later life.

Teens and young adults. This may be the age group most likely to engage in indoor tanning. Impress upon your teen the dangers of tanning, both indoors and out. Explain to them that even a so-called base tan is a sign of skin damage. Teach them that UV exposure is cumulative: It adds up over time, and every time they tan it increases their chances of getting skin cancer. Urge your teen to cover up, use sunscreen and avoid tanning beds.

Men. As a group, men are more likely than anyone else to get skin cancer. That includes the deadliest skin cancer, melanoma.

Why are men at higher risk? Men tend to spend more time outdoors than women, and they’re more likely to work outdoors than women. They’re also less likely to wear sunscreen: According to CDC, only about 14% of men use sunscreen on both their face and other exposed areas of skin. Men should take the same basic sun-safety precautions when outdoors as everyone else.

Older adults. Fewer than half of older adults take steps to protect their skin from the sun’s rays when outside for at least an hour, reports CDC. That’s despite the fact that most cases of skin cancer are found in people older than 65.

If you’re an older adult, don’t forget to use sunscreen when going outdoors. And practice other basic sun-safety precautions.

© Coffey Communications, Inc.

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