UV radiation: A little goes a long way
July 16, 2007
Steamboat Springs — Faster than a speeding bullet. More powerful than a locomotive. Able to leap tall buildings in a single bound and pass through glass without breaking it.
We’re not talking about a new and improved Superman here, but common sunlight.
Too much sun exposure is responsible for millions of cases of skin cancer as well as cataracts and other vision problems. Enjoying the sun without risking our health requires quality sunscreens, protective clothing and good judgment.
Exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light is believed to be the No. 1 cause of all types of skin cancer. Sunlight that has passed through the earth’s atmosphere has two types of invisible UV rays – UVA and UVB.
UVA rays pass through glass so you can be exposed to them while sitting in a sunny window or driving in the car. Scientists believe exposure to UVA rays probably plays a role in the formation of melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer.
UVB rays, the ones that tan and burn your skin, are strongest in the summer months, although they are dangerous year-round at higher altitudes. They are more powerful than UVA rays and damage skin more rapidly. UVB rays are considered to be the main cause of nonmelanoma skin cancers that include basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, which are common but rarely fatal.
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To understand how living at high altitude can affect our skin, Dr. Sandra Eivins of the Dermatology Center of Steamboat Springs, says “for every 1,000 feet in elevation, the UV radiation is increased by 10 percent. So, living at 7,000 feet in elevation, we are exposing our skin to 70 percent more radiation than people living at sea level. This is why Colorado has a higher incidence of skin cancer.”
Prevention is the best medicine when it comes to skin cancer. Experts estimate at least 80 percent of all skin cancers can be prevented if people are vigilant about protecting themselves from harmful rays of the sun.
Staying out of the sun in peak burning times between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is a good first step. If you’re going to be outside, choose a shady spot and wear a wide-brimmed hat and protective clothing. Specially manufactured, sun-protective clothing or tightly woven, light-colored garments are most effective.
When you’re going to be in the sun, use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that will filter out most UVA and UVB rays. Choose one with an SPF factor of at least 15. Sunscreen needs to be applied very liberally and reapplied often, especially if you’re in the water.
Physical tanning blocks that give lifeguards their white noses have been redesigned for wider appeal. The zinc and titanium particles are now micronized and are so tiny as to be almost invisible while providing an effective sun block.
The number of skin cancers diagnosed in the United States has been rising by 4 to 5 percent per year. The American Cancer Society estimates almost 1.4 million new cases of skin cancer will be diagnosed this year. Some 88,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. Melanoma is the most common cancer among women between the ages of 25 and 29. It can spread quickly, but if detected early, it can be successfully treated and cured.
Our skin is our largest organ and our interface with the elements. Its job is to protect us and screen out unwanted invaders. But our skin needs a little help from us.
We need to make smart lifestyle decisions such as wearing hats, protective clothing and sunscreen as well as staying in the shade during the sunniest times of day. By consistently protecting our bodies from harmful UV rays, we can reduce our risk of skin cancer.
Lisa A. Bankard coordinates community education and wellness programs at Yampa Valley Medical Center.