Soak it in but stay protected
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — There’s nothing like the warmth of spring sun on bare arms and legs that have been hidden under layers of clothing for six months.
But along with the snowmelt, longer days and welcomed warm weather comes the danger of too much UV exposure.
And it’s important to remember that UV exposure increases with altitude, said Dr. Jennifer Kempers, a physician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
There are a number of ways to mitigate exposure, Kempers said, and avoiding the sun is best.
But that’s not realistic for those who spend their winter looking forward to free time spent hiking, biking and rafting — or for those who spend summers working outside.
To minimize harm, try to stay out of the sun during peak hours, Kempers said, from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
There’s the shadow test to see just how strong the sun’s rays are: If your shadow is shorter than you are, then the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
And don’t forget that snow, sand and water reflect sunlight, thus increasing the amount of UV radiation to which your skin may be exposed.
When you are in the sun, wear sunscreen or protective clothing. Kempers recommends a daily facial sunscreen that is 15 to 30 SPF. It makes it easy if it can be part of your daily routine — included in makeup or also used as moisturizer.
If you are out in the sun for extended periods of time or have light skin, it’s best to use sunscreen with at least 30 SPF, Kempers said. But anything over 50 isn’t neccessarily going to give added protection.
Look for sunscreen that says “broad spectrum,” she said, covering both UVA and UVB rays — both are damaging.
“UVB rays are shorter than UVA rays and are the main culprit behind sunburn. But it is the UVA rays, with their longer wavelength, that are responsible for much of the damage we associate with photoaging,” according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
“Both cause sun burn and can lead to skin cancer,” Kempers said, as well as photoaging.
But much worse than looking old, the worst case scenario — skin cancer — is prevalent. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. And one person dies of melanoma every hour.
The good news is the daily use of sunscreen SPF 15 or higher reduces the risk of melanoma by 50%.
You don’t have to burn to do damage, Kempers noted. But preventing sun burn goes a long way — your risk of developing melanoma doubles if you have had more than five sunburns.
Basal cell carcinoma
Basal cell carcinoma usually occurs in sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your neck or face.
Basal cell carcinoma may appear as:
- A pearly or waxy bump
- A flat, flesh-colored or brown scar-like lesion
- A bleeding or scabbing sore that heals and returns
Squamous cell carcinoma
Most often, squamous cell carcinoma occurs on sun-exposed areas of your body, such as your face, ears and hands. People with darker skin are more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma on areas that aren’t often exposed to the sun.
Squamous cell carcinoma may appear as:
- A firm, red nodule
- A flat lesion with a scaly, crusted surface
Melanoma can develop anywhere on your body, in otherwise normal skin or in an existing mole that becomes cancerous. In both men and women, melanoma can occur on skin that hasn’t been exposed to the sun. Melanoma can affect people of any skin tone.
Melanoma signs include:
- A large brownish spot with darker speckles
- A mole that changes in color, size or feel or that bleeds
- A small lesion with an irregular border and portions that appear red, pink, white, blue or blue-black
- A painful lesion that itches or burns
- Dark lesions on your palms, soles, fingertips or toes, or on mucous membranes lining your mouth, nose, vagina or anus
Source: Mayo Clinic
And don’t forget that you can still burn and get dangerous UV exposure on a cloudy day, Kempers said. “Eighty-seven percent of UV rays penetrate through the clouds.”
In terms of protective clothing, it “depends on how thin the material is and how tight of a weave,” she said. Weave is particularly key, and darker clothes give more protection than light-colored.
Wear a hat — that way you don’t have to worry about forgetting to put sunscreen on the part in your hair or those parts of the ears that often get missed — and use enough sunscreen — about a teaspoon on the face and neck and two tablespoons for the entire body.
While skin cancer is the most common of cancers, it is also the easiest to cure. Early detection is key, so it’s good to get into the practice of a monthly head to toe exam of your skin — spending about 10 minutes looking for anything new or changing.
Get a doctor to do an initial full-body screening, in order to determine whether existing spots, freckles or moles are normal.
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