A burning issue
The warmer weather brings with it more opportunities for outdoor activities and fun in the sun. Although Florida’s climate offers conditions ripe for healthy pursuits, too much sun exposure can lead to unhealthy skin damage.
A few simple safety steps can help prevent skin damage, aging and cancer
BY JERRY SHAW
As the days get longer and the sun gets stronger, it can only mean one thing: Summer is just around the corner. And with summer, comes more time in the sun swimming, snorkeling, diving, boating on the waterways or enjoying outdoor activities in parks.
It may also not only mean painful sunburn but more serious issues that include skin damage, skin aging and skin cancers. The Treasure Coast is a haven for sun worshippers who relish in the recreational and sporting opportunities available here. That shouldn’t change as long as people know the risks and take a few simple steps for health safety.
The good news about summertime is that the sun in small doses offers health benefits. It creates vitamin D, which helps absorb calcium into the body for healthy bones. Some doctors even recommend exposure to the sun for patients with skin conditions such as eczema or psoriasis.
The problem arises when there is too much sun exposure, which can result in early aging signs, a lowered immune system, eye damage and skin cancers.
Lighter-skinned people are more at risk for sunburn and skin cancers than darker-skinned people. However, everyone is at risk for the effects of sun exposure, especially when spending a lot of time outside. The protections needed may depend on your type of skin and the time you spend under the sun.
Guidelines for protecting yourself against the damages of the sun include wearing wide-brimmed hats and protective clothing that limits exposure to the sun as well as staying in the shade whenever possible. Wearing flaps that cover the neck also offers protection.
“Don’t forget to also wear sunglasses to protect your eyes,” advises Dr. Larry Landsman, a Vero Beach dermatologist. The ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun increase the risk of eye growths, cataracts and cancer. Choose UV-blocking sunglasses.
Sunscreen makes it easier for many people to enjoy the sunshine outdoors.
“Apply sunscreen every two or three hours,” says Dr. Landsman. Reapplication is as important as putting the lotion on in the first place. Also reapply after swimming or sweating a great deal.
Use a sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15, applying it 15 to 30 minutes before going into the sun. It’s important to protect the skin from the sun even in cloudy weather since the UV rays can still pass through the clouds. Sunburns may even result from cloudy weather because people can’t feel the intensity of the sun’s rays.
SUNSCREEN A MUST
Higher factors, such as SPF 30 or SPF 50, offer more protection. People who are light sensitive or have a history of skin cancer may want to choose the sunscreens with higher factors. Look for sunscreens that provide broad-spectrum protection. Landsman recommends sunscreens with zinc oxide as an active ingredient. The seal of recommendation from the Skin Cancer Foundation on products shows the sunscreen meets the highest standards for sun protection. It may also appear on sunglasses, auto and residential window film and glass, awnings and clothing.
Concerns should not just center on protection against sunburns and skin cancer. Landsman points out that the protective guidelines help slow the aging clock as much as possible. “Ultraviolent rays contribute to the aging process” down the road over the years, he says.
“Look at the area on your skin exposed to the sun and compare it to the area that is not exposed and see the difference. There is no question sun exposure makes you look older than your age,” notes Dr. Landsman, who also has experience in dermatology at the University of Miami and the Cleveland Clinic of Fort Lauderdale.
“Don’t look at how much older you are but how much sun damage you have.”
AVOID TANNING BEDS
It may be difficult to convince younger people they could develop skin cancer or wrinkles and aging skin. Landsman recommends younger folks look at an older parent, brother or sister to notice changes in their skin from the sun.
“When they see them getting wrinkles, that convinces them,” Dr. Landsman observes. “That’s all you can do, just point out that fact and hope they take the advice.”
Some people believe they can avoid damage from the sun by going to tanning booths. “Going to a tanning bed is absolutely the worst thing you can do,” Dr. Landsman asserts.
The UV radiation from tanning lamps can lead to premature aging of the skin, such as wrinkles and brown spots, and skin cancer. People who start using a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 75 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
This is especially risky for those who begin to use tanning booths in their teens, notes Dr. Tim Ioannides, dermatologist and founder of Treasure Coast Dermatology in Martin, St. Lucie and Indian River counties. “I’ve seen a lot of wrinkles and sun spots in people in their early twenties (from tanning booths),” he says.
UV rays penetrate deep into the epidermis, the outer layer of the skin, and into the dermis, the inner layer. This causes an increase in melanin, responsible for skin pigmentation. The reaction results in tanning. Although a tan may look healthy, it’s actually a sign of skin damage.
SKIN CANCER CASES INCREASE
Fair-skinned people have less melanin that darker-skinned people, so they are more at risk for sun burning and skin cancer. However, Ioannides has seen an increase in skin cancer cases for darker skinned patients, such as Hispanics and Italians. He’s also seen an increase in recent years for skin cancer along the Treasure Coast overall.
“South Florida has one of the highest incidence of skin cancer in the world,” Dr. Ioannides says.
It’s not just going to the beach or a park; increased risks of skin damage may occur to people who work in the sun all day, such as construction workers or farmers. Fishermen and other outdoor sportsmen need protection from the sun.
Along with sunscreen and protective clothing, people can plan or limit their exposure to the sun, avoiding direct sunlight from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. as much as possible or taking breaks from the sun by going inside or in the shade.
Although parents are often instructed to protect their children from the negative effects of the sun, they shouldn’t become so overly concerned that it interferes with healthy activities, Ioannides explains. “I don’t think parents should freak out when their kids are outside for 20 to 30 minutes, if they’re not getting sunburned. That’s probably OK.”
Getting the proper amount of vitamin D is also important when people decide to avoid the sun completely because low levels of the nutrient are associated with a host of disorders, including diabetes and cancer. Ioannides recommends a minimum of 2,000 IU vitamin D in supplements a day for those who don’t get enough sun exposure.
KNOW THE SIGNS
There are two types of skin cancers: melanoma and nonmelanoma. Melanoma is less common than nonmelanomas, which are very treatable. A 2012 study published in the Southern Medical Journal found that Florida had the second highest incidence of melanoma in the U.S. with more than 600 Floridians dying each year from it. California was first.
Signs of melanoma may show up as black or brown moles, even pink or white. It is still often curable through surgery when detected early.
Basal cell carcinoma, a nonmelanoma and the most common type of skin cancer, is unlikely to spread but still needs treatment. Signs include red or pink raised areas that are often shiny or patchy. Squamous cell carcinoma is a little more harmful than basal cell and more likely to spread. Signs include scaly red patches or crusty lesions.
Actinic keratoses may indicate a risk in developing skin cancer. They may cause changes in the size and shape of skin growths.
Take note of any changes in the skin or any growth, mole, sore or skin discoloration that appears suddenly, and have regular checkups with a dermatologist, who can determine skin conditions with accuracy. This will eliminate any worries about your skin so you can enjoy the outdoors while taking a few precautions.