By Natalie Harding, Grace Cottage Family Health PA-C
After a long, cold Vermont winter, the warmth of the sun is rejuvenating, but it can also endanger your health. During UV Safety Month, I want to remind you how to enjoy the sun AND stay safe.
You might think that Vermont is so far north that skin cancer isn’t much of a problem here. Not true. According to the Vermont Department of Health, Vermont has one of the highest rates of melanoma in the U.S.—29 cases per 100,000 in VT, compared to 19.9/100,000 nationally. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer, and it is the third most common type of cancer in the U.S.
Every year, over 6 million Americans are treated for skin cancer. Every time your skin burns, you increase your risk for skin cancer. Maybe we are less careful because of where we live.
Fortunately, skin cancer is often treatable. But prevention is BEST.
Let me share three simple things you can do to protect yourself from the sun.
First, remember “broad spectrum.” While all sunscreen products may help to prevent a sunburn, only those that carry the name “broad spectrum” can fully protect your skin from the two types of radiation that cause cancer — UVA and UVB.
Here’s a memory device to help you remember the difference between these two. UVA is responsible for Aging. UVB is responsible for Burning. Both can damage the skin. Clothing has varying degrees of protection, but of course, it doesn’t help skin that’s exposed, so you do need sunscreen, at least for your hands, face, and ears!
Skin damage can set in quickly, especially when you are young, and it is compounded by repeat exposure. In as little as 15 minutes you can start to burn, causing skin damage over time. And if you use a tanning bed, you are greatly increasing your risk of skin cancer.
Second, make a good choice about SPF, which stands for “sun protection factor.” SPF is figured by determining how long it takes skin that is protected with sunscreen to burn, compared to unprotected skin. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends at least SPF 30.
To emphasize these first two points—the importance of broad spectrum and SPF—the FDA requires that sunscreens without “broad spectrum” and with an SPF lower than 15 to carry a warning on their packaging, saying, “Spending time in the sun increases your risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. This product has been shown only to help prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early skin aging.” Pay attention to this when purchasing a sunscreen.
Third, when purchasing a sunscreen, make a conscious choice between sunscreens that are “physical” versus “chemical” based. Physical sunscreens contain minerals that form an actual physical barrier on top of your skin. Chemical sunscreens are absorbed. Physical sunscreens are best since they physically block solar rays and are not absorbed.
For the past several years, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been evaluating the absorption of several common chemical sunscreen ingredients. The results showed that the ingredients studied were absorbed into the body’s bloodstream after even a single use, and that once absorbed, the ingredients can remain in the body for extended periods of time. Without further testing, the FDA does not know what levels of absorption can be considered safe. It does recognize that, at this point, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the key ingredients in mineral sunscreens, are the only safe and effective ingredients.
If you are traveling this summer, you also need to know that chemical sunscreens are banned in some places. Travel and Leisure reports that some chemical sunscreens are banned in the following locations: Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Key West, Bonaire, parts of Mexico, and Palau. The list is growing, so check your destination. Concerns about chemical sunscreens washing off and harming marine life have led to these bans. In Hawaii, oxybenzone and octinoxate are both banned. Look for products labeled “reef safe” and “reef conscious.”
And remember, even a physical sunscreen will wash off when swimming or sweating, so it needs to be reapplied frequently.
What about your eyes? You have undoubtedly experienced the painful glare of the sun in your eyes, but did you know this too can cause health problems, including cancer? According to the National Institute of Health, prolonged exposure to UV rays can lead to cataract formation, worsen eyesight, cause cancers of the eyelid, and damage the macula (part of the light-sensitive retina in the back of the eye), leading to a greater risk for age-related macular degeneration. To protect your eyes, wear either sunglasses or a hat, or both.
The risk from UV rays is there all year long, but in the summer we tend to be outdoors longer and have more skin exposed, increasing the risk. Don’t skimp when applying sunscreen. Bring it with you wherever you go, and enjoy the summer without destroying your skin!