Ask The Expert

Skin Cancer

May 29, 2008|By Holly Selby

Warm weather is here at last. But before you hit the beach or the tennis courts or head for the pool, make sure you've taken precautions to protect yourself from the sun's searing rays, says Dr. Oanh Lauring, a dermatologist at Mercy Medical Center.

Who is at risk for skin cancer?

Anyone who is exposed to the sun, but those at highest risk are patients with fair skin. So typically blonds, people with red hair, blue eyes or fair skin to start with are at increased risk.

But black people need sunscreen, too. They do burn, and if you are someone who has any kind of dark marks or discolored skin such as acne or other darker areas, those areas need protection as well.

What can you do to prevent yourself (or loved ones) from getting skin cancer?

Use sunscreen, particularly during summer months. Remember, the sun is most intense at high noon, so don't go outdoors at that time without sunscreen or some other protection (such as a hat). I tell my patients that SPF 15 is OK in the fall and winter, but in summer, bump it up to SPF 30 or 40. If you want a product that is a good sunblock, look for one that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in it.

And remember that car windows do not protect you from the sun. UVA rays come through. That's why in America, we get more cancers on the left side of our faces, and in England, it is the reverse.

Some sunscreens have an SPF rating of 60 or 70. Do these products offer the best protection?

An SPF of 30 or 45 is sufficient for the summer months. When you go above an SPF 40, there is only about a 1 percent increase in the effectiveness. And at the higher SPF levels, the manufacturers are putting more ingredients in the sunscreen to give it that level of protection, and there's higher risk of the sunscreen causing an irritation or allergy.

If I use a sunscreen that I purchased last year, will I be getting protection?

I have used sunscreens from a previous year and you can tell -- especially with sunscreens that contain zinc oxide -- that they are still good. If a sunscreen is starting to get discolored, chances are it is not so good.

Do small children need particular protection from the sun?

On my children, I use sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium. Bring an umbrella. Don't sit them out in the sun.

Little kids are often super-fair because they don't have as much pigment as an adult yet. For certain cancers, it is the number of blistering burns that you have had, not necessarily the cumulative effects of the sun, so be careful not to let children get burned.

One brand that is good for kids and is water-resistant is Blue Lizard, which is made in Australia. There is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen; saying "water-resistant" is more honest. Coppertone and Neutrogena [Age Shield Sunblock] Helioplex also are good to use. Both protect against UVB and UVA rays.

What is your personal regime for sun protection?

I make it a rule that every day after I wash my face, I put a sunscreen on. It protects against the sun, and it is anti-aging. The Neutrogena Helioplex spray goes on clear and light and dry, especially if you want to use sunscreen on your scalp or spray your part line.

For my kids? I put them naked in the bathroom and just spray them down. It is neat, fast and easy.

What about using clothing for protection?

There is sun-protective clothing for kids and adults. And now there are some detergents that are pretreated with sunblocker. Generally, if the fabric has a tight weave, it will block sunlight. But if you wear a straw hat with holes, that doesn't really protect you so you still need a sunscreen.

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