Avoiding sunburn and skin cancer

What the expert says: “One of the worst habits I’ve seen in workers exposed to the sun is removing the shirt,” says Dr. Peggy Fuller of Esthetics Center for Dermatology in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Many people think a “base tan” protects them, says Dr. Casey Gallagher, co-founder of the Boulder Valley Dermatology Center in Lafayette, Colorado. But the chronic sun exposure that creates a base tan increases their risk of developing skin cancer, the most common form of cancer with more than 1 million cases diagnosed annually in the United States.

Protecting yourself requires wearing sunscreen that blocks UVB and UVA rays – Gallagher recommends SPF 30 or higher – every day of the year, including cloudy days. Up to 80 percent of ultraviolet radiation permeates cloud cover. Apply sunblock 30 minutes before sun exposure, and reapply it every two hours if you aren’t sweating, more often if you are.

Cover as much of your skin as possible by wearing long sleeves, pants, a hat with at least a 4-inch brim and a drape covering the back of your neck. But be aware clothing doesn’t offer 100 percent protection. A white T-shirt wet with sweat has an SPF of 3, Gallagher says.

Several lines of lightweight clothing with sunscreens embedded in the fibers are now available. These fabrics usually have an ultraviolet protection factor instead of an SPF. The Skin Cancer Foundation considers a UPF of 30 to 49 very good and 50 or higher excellent. Sun Guard, a laundry additive that lasts through 20 washings, also increases clothing’s UPF.

Non-melanoma skin cancer usually isn’t life-threatening, but is more difficult to treat and can cause disfigurement if not dealt with promptly. This type of skin cancer normally appears on parts of the body frequently exposed to sun – the face, neck, bald scalp, hands, shoulders and arms – and looks like a sore or pimple that doesn’t heal.

Melanoma is more likely to be fatal. Still, if treated early, it’s almost always curable, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Be on the lookout for new moles or those that change color, shape or size. Melanoma typically forms on skin intermittently exposed to sun: the trunk, chest and back of men; the legs of women.

Sun exposure causes 90 percent of skin cancers, so shielding your skin can greatly reduce your risk. “It might be a little uncomfortable, and in the beginning you might not be able to tell much difference, but after years of working outdoors, being sun smart really pays off,” Gallagher says.

For more information, including detailed descriptions and photos of different skin cancer types, go to www.skincancer.org.

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