Remember sun protection at outdoor festivals

Dr. Mark Lowitt of Greater Baltimore Medical Center answers questions about preventing sunburn

May 18, 2011|By Meredith Cohn, The Baltimore Sun

Outdoor festivals like the Preakness can mean hours in the harsh rays. Most people know that the sun can be damaging yet still don't adequately cover up. May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and Dr. Mark Lowitt, a dermatologist at Greater Baltimore Medical Center, answered questions about sunscreen and avoiding damage.

What is the best ingredient (and best number of SPF) to look for in a sunscreen?

For most people, we recommend sunscreens with an SPF of 30. For people who are at especially high risk for skin cancer, such as those with a past history of skin cancer, those with extremely fair and easily burned skin, or those with many moles, we recommend sunscreens with SPF of 50 or greater. Just buying the sunscreen bottle isn't enough, though — you have to actually use it. Most people do not apply enough sunscreen with each application. For each body application, we should use the amount of lotion that would fit in a shot glass. When we use less than this, no matter what SPF is printed on the label, we only receive an SPF of about 5.

Is there any danger in using oxybenzone, which some believe is linked to cancer?

No. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreens with oxybenzone.

What kinds of clothes can also prevent burns?

Having a T-shirt on over your swimsuit does help a little, but not much. The SPF provided by your average T-shirt is only about 6. Fortunately, many companies now make shirts with built-in high SPF protection. Wear these when you are at the beach, or out for extended periods when running, golfing or watching your kids' sporting events. The shirts actually look good now, by the way, and they are made by many national and well-known local sporting apparel companies.

What if you see a suspicious mark on your body?

Do not ignore it. Skin cancer that is left untreated can be deadly, but if found and removed early, it can be completely cured. Show the spot to your primary care provider or to a local dermatologist. A suspicious spot might be a spot that bleeds, hurts or grows rapidly. A suspicious spot might be a brown "mole" that looks different from all of the other moles on your body, that appears to be changing in shape, color or size.

What are the top five 5 tips on how to avoid getting skin cancer?

1) Look at your skin. If you have moles, get to know them so you can notice if one of them changes. Saying that you "can't see your back" is no excuse: take a small hand-held mirror, hold it in front of you, and back up close to your large bathroom mirror. Voila! You have a great view of your back. If you see something that you don't remember, show your doctor.

2) Be smart about sun exposure. Let's face it — being in the sun feels good. But you can make choices most of the time — like going indoors between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., or being under an umbrella or putting on that SPF shirt — these things can make a difference and lower your risk of skin cancer.

3) Do not allow yourself to get a bad burn. A single blistering burn significantly increases one's risk of melanoma, the most deadly skin cancer.

4) Apply sunscreen as part of your routine every morning and keep it by the sink with everything else. If you tie sunscreen application to your other must-do activities (brushing your teeth, shaving, brushing your hair) then it no longer becomes another irritating task to accomplish if you think of it later in the day. You get ultraviolet light damage through car windows, as well as the windows in your home or office—so don't just apply it when you expect to be outdoors.

5) See your doctor regularly and allow him or her to do a complete skin examination. We are good at finding things that you might not have noticed.

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