Covering up is best defense for getting too much sun

WOMEN'S HEALTH

May 11, 1993|By Dr. Genevieve Matanoski | Dr. Genevieve Matanoski,Contributing Writer

Winter's gone. We've shed our coats. Now's the time to think about fun in the great outdoors -- beaches, surfing, sailing, sports. But while all these are healthy pastimes, they share one potential danger: overexposure to sunlight. Radiation from Old Sol is the main cause of skin cancer, the most common form of cancer.Sunlight can also speed up aging of the skin. Although men are 60 percent more likely to develop skin cancer than women, dermatologists are concerned about the increasing numbers of women in their 20s and 30s who are developing the disease.

Q: What is skin cancer?

A: There are actually three forms of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. The most common type is basal cell cancer. This cancer is not lethal, but it can produce serious scarring on highly visible parts of the body where the sun has hit. Dermatologists warn that if you have any skin lesion that grows, changes in color or appearance, itches or opens up and will not heal, you should see your doctor.

Q: Who is at risk of skin cancer?

A: People who are "fair" or light-skinned and who sunburn easily have an increased risk of developing skin cancer.

Many scientists feel that the sunburns you had as a child have already started the process of skin cancer development, but others think that the accumulation of sun rays over a lifetime contribute to the risk. Certainly the added exposures over the years contribute to the rapid aging of the skin. A recent Johns Hopkins study in which I collaborated has shown that an individual's ability to repair sun damage may play an important role in the development of skin cancer.

Q: What can I do to prevent skin cancer?

A: The best thing you can do to avoid these problems is stay out of the sun -- difficult, if not impossible, in the summer -- so you need to be smart and stay covered: with sunscreen all over your exposed skin (not just your face but your arms and legs too) and with a hat and loose clothing. Note the SPF (sun protection factor) of the sun block: 15 SPF is the minimum protection you need from the sun's rays. As the number goes up, so does the level of protection. If you burn easily, you should look for an SPF over 30, in addition to staying out of the sun.

Q: I've already spent many summers frying, with apparently no ill effects. Am I cancer proof?

A: You're lucky. Unlike a sunburn that disappears over time, however, sun damage accumulates. The sunburns you had as a child, the sunburns you get every winter skiing and by the pool each summer -- they probably add up to contribute to your skin cancer risk.

Take particular care to avoid heavy exposure of your children.

Matanoski is a physician and professor of epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health.

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