By Jamie Dickinson PA-C
Mercy Health Physician Partners Lakeshore Family Care
Summer weather is starting to arrive in West Michigan, bringing warm temperatures, abundant sunshine and longer days to enjoy both. It’s time to get outside and get moving.
According the Skin Cancer Foundation, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. In Michigan alone, the American Cancer Society estimates 3,440 new cases of skin cancer in 2021.
That’s why keeping the largest organ of your body — your skin — safe is extremely important. The UV rays of the sun can damage unprotected skin leading to not only early skin aging, but non-cancerous skin growths and potentially deadly skin cancers.
Ultraviolet (UV) Rays and Vitamin D
You don’t have to avoid the sun completely — just limit your exposure to UV rays because there are no safe UV rays and there is no safe suntan. Two forms of radiant energy in UV rays that can damage your skin and cause skin cancer are UVA rays and UVB rays. UVA rays are associated with aging and UVB rays are associated with sunburns.
When you are in the sun, your skin naturally makes vitamin D. UVB rays allow the body to produce vitamin D, which is essential to overall health. However, UVB rays can also burn skin and cause damage leading to skin cancer. Taking vitamin D supplements and getting vitamin D from your diet are two additional ways to obtain this vitamin without increasing your risk of skin cancer.
Easy-to-Follow Tips for Sun Safety
Pay Attention to the Season, Time of Day, Elevation and Weather
The UV Index indicates how strong the UV rays are in your area on a particular day. The scale is from 1 to 11+, with a higher number meaning there is a greater risk of exposer to UV rays. The safest way to limit UV exposure is to stay in the shade. Be aware that UV rays are strongest under the following conditions:
- Spring and Summer
- Midday, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- At higher elevations
It is important to take precautions on days with clouds and haze, too, because UV rays can penetrate them. Sun exposure can also occur through windows, even tinted ones, which can be found in automobiles, on airplanes and in homes.
Remember that UV rays reflect off surfaces, such as sand and pavement. They penetrate water and reflect off water, as well.
Apply Sunscreen and Lip Balm
Keep in mind that sunscreen is a filter; it does not block all UV rays. To protect your skin, you’ll need to follow multiple safety tips for maximum benefit.
- Check the expiration date. If you are using sunscreen from a previous year, make sure it wasn’t exposed to heat.
- Read the label carefully so you know what you are buying. Follow the instructions and be aware that some products can irritate skin.
- The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) is a number indicating the level of protection the sunscreen provides against UVB rays only. SPF does not indicate anything about UVA protection. The higher the number, the more protection from UVB rays. However, don’t think that you can stay in the sun longer with a higher SPF number.
- Reapply sunscreen at least every 2 hours. Sunscreens can wash off when you swim, sweat or use a towel. Even “water resistant” sunscreen may need to be reapplied often.
- Don’t forget to apply the sunscreen to your ears, the front and back of your neck, and the tops of your feet, and apply lip balm with SPF too.
- Sunscreens labeled as “broad spectrum protection” guard against both UVA and UVB rays. The American Cancer Society recommends broad spectrum protection sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher for maximum protection.
Wear Protective Clothing and Accessories
Protective clothing adds one more important line of defense.
- A hat with a 2- to 3-inch brim all around — or a shade cap that also protects your neck — will help protect your head and face.
- To protect your eyes and the skin around them, wear UV-blocking sunglasses that are labelled “UV absorption up to 400 nm” or “Meets ANSI UV Requirements.” This means the glasses block at least 99% of UV rays.
- Cover as much of your skin as possible by wearing long-sleeved shirts and long skirts or pants.
- Tightly woven fabrics in dark colors block more UV rays more than other types of clothing. They offer more protection when dry.
- Clothing manufacturers have developed light-weight clothing with UV protection factor (UPF) values that offer protection even when wet. The UPF scale is 15 to 50+, with the higher the number, the higher the protection from UV rays. Follow all washing instructions carefully.
Check for Skin Changes
A simple tool to evaluate a new skin lesion is to remember the ABCDEs of melanoma. If you notice any of the changes listed below, speak with your primary care provider (PCP). These indicate a higher concern for cancer:
Asymmetry — lesion does not look the same on both sides
Borders — irregular borders that are not smooth and round
Color — darker or multiple shades
Diameter — size greater than the eraser on a pencil
Evolution — lesion is changing in some way.
Schedule an Annual Visit with a Primary Care Provider (PCP)
One reason it is so important to visit your PCP annually is to have your provider examine any skin changes you have noticed to determine if you require any follow-up care. When in doubt, don’t wait. Make an appointment with a medical professional. When it comes to skin cancer, the sooner the diagnosis, the better the prognosis.
If you do not have a PCP, you can find one using our Find a Doctor search at MercyHealth.com.