We’re coming into prime time for sun exposure in the Northeast, but no matter the season it’s more important than ever to protect against sun damage to your skin.
As the ozone layer continues to deplete, exposure to ultraviolet radiation produced by the sun has become more dangerous, causing accelerated aging and worse. Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and the incidences of its most deadly form – melanoma – have risen rapidly over the past four decades.
Up to 40 percent of UV rays reach the earth even on a completely cloudy day. No tan is a safe tan, and sun damage is cumulative. Skin damage and cancer can affect every skin type and color; having darker skin does not mean you’re protected.
50 SPF and Then Some
I am now recommending that everyone use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 50 – yes, I said 50!
The sunscreen needs to be applied liberally – use at least a shot glass full – a half-hour before going into the sun and reapplied every two hours or immediately after swimming or sweating. Most waterproof sunscreens can last about 80 minutes – so keep reapplying.
Slather at least one teaspoon of sunscreen on each arm; two teaspoons on each leg; a teaspoon on the face. And don’t forget the ears - many people do – and the back and sides of the neck.
Brush Your Teeth, Then Put on Sunscreen
Wear sunscreen daily, even if you’re not headed to the beach or pool. Your morning routine should start with sunscreen applied to the face, neck, arms, and hands. Make-up can go over the sunscreen. (Be careful: Foundation make-up with SPF generally does not offer enough protection on its own). If you’re concerned about the chemicals in sunscreen, find a mineral-based one with a high SPF. Although some are chalky, there are also plenty of clear options.
I’ve treated many bald men with a lot of sun damage. Hats and sunscreen are needed daily. Even hair does not provide adequate protection from the sun. Wear a hat with a wide brim – three to four inches — particularly between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun is strongest.
Don’t let your high SPF lull you into a false sense of security. It is still best to cover up if you are spending time outdoors from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. In addition to a wide-brimmed hat and sunscreen, there are plenty of excellent clothing options with high SPF, including long-sleeved sportswear. Always wear polarized sunglasses that also offer UV protection.
Your skin is your largest organ, so you have a responsibility to take care of it. Be aware of markings and changes to your skin. See a dermatologist once a year, or more often if you are at a higher risk, for a full-body, professional skin exam. These screenings are an essential part of potentially life-saving early detection.
In between screenings with your doctor, check your own skin about once a month in front of a full-length mirror in a well-lit room. Use the “ABCDE rule” to look for signs of skin cancer in a skin lesion or mole:
A: asymmetry - one half is unlike the other
B: border – irregular or poorly defined border
C: color – varied from one area to another (shades of tan, brown, black, red, white)
D: diameter – larger than 6 mm (size of a pencil eraser)
E: evolution – looks different, or is changing in size, color, or shape
Don't forget to also check inside your mouth and keep an eye on any old growths or skin scars. Check your nails for a dark band, especially if it starts to spread.
Make it a habit to safeguard yourself from sun damage: dark spots, wrinkles, and skin cancer. There are a million cases of skin cancer in the United States each year. Protect yourself!
Dr. Haberman is board-certified in dermatology, a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology, and a member of the American Academy of Cosmetic Surgery, American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery, and the American Society for Mohs Surgery. He is a best-selling author of books on skin care, and he has shared his expert commentary on CNN, 20/20, the Today Show, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. He has offices in Saddle Brook and Ridgewood. Call 201-368-0011 to make an appointment.
For more information about skin cancer prevention and treatment, please visit holyname.org/skincancer.