Protecting your skin goes beyond summer

FAIRMONT — While warm, sunny weather draws more people outside for activities, proper skin care and protection from the sun aren’t just summer concerns.

Precautions like applying sunscreen, wearing hats and long-sleeve clothing, and seeking shade, especially during peak sun intensity hours, are necessary year round, says Dr. Ingrid Chan, a family medicine physician at Mayo Clinic Health System in Fairmont.

“These precautions occur whether it’s in the summer or winter months,” Chan said.

And it’s about more than just avoiding the uncomfortable, immediate and temporary symptoms of sunburn, such as red, painful skin and, in severe cases, blisters and fever.

Although the skin might appear to heal on the surface, skin damage goes deeper, and accumulates over time.

Chan said the majority of skin damage is done before the age of 18 when people don’t really know any better to use sunscreen and other precautions. The lasting effects, however, often don’t start to manifest until a person reaches their 40s, according to the American Academy of Dermatology Web site at www.aad.org.

“Every time you get a sun burn or it blisters — you’re accumulating damage in your skin,” Chan said.

Repeated exposure to too much sun over a course of years can lead to skin cancer. Chan said 1 million people are diagnosed with skin cancer every year in the United States, and 1 in 5 people will develop some form of skin cancer in their lifetime.

There are three primary types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma are fairly straightforward to diagnose and remove, especially with early detection.

Melanoma is the deadliest form of skin cancer and the one most likely to spread to other areas of the body. Early detection is crucial.

There are also precancerous growths called actinic keratoses that, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, manifest as dry, scaly patches or spots. Because these lesions can develop into squamous cell carcinoma, early treatment is important.

The good news, Chan said, is that skin cancer is preventable, but it’s important to begin precautions early in life.

Adults, children and babies 6 months and older should use sunscreen, Chan said. The best policy for babies under 6 months of age is to keep them in shaded areas as much as possible, she added.

And it’s important to apply sunscreen whenever spending time in the sun, Chan said, and that means all year round, on cloudy days too, and even in vehicles.

Not all sunscreens are created equal, though.

There are two types of rays from sunlight that will damage the skin: UVA and UVB. UVA rays are linked to aging, such as brown spots and wrinkles, and they can penetrate window glass, Chan said. UVB rays are most commonly linked to sunburns and skin cancer, but they cannot penetrate window glass.

To thoroughly protect your skin, a broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays is important, Chan said.

It’s also recommended to choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor or SPF of 30 or more.

Water and snow can reflect the rays of the sun, meaning people spending time near either of those things may need to reapply sunscreen more often or take additional precautions.

Cloudy days do not give people a pass from sun protection.

“That’s a common misconception,” Chan said.

She added that even when it’s cloudy outside, up to 80 percent of the sun’s UV rays can penetrate the skin.

The AAD recommends applying sunscreen about 20 minutes before going outside so it has time to take effect.

Another misconception is that there is such a thing as a “healthy” tan.

“We all love a good tan,” Chan said. “The only problem is the tan comes from skin damage.”

Hyperpigmentation — or an increase in the melanin naturally produced by the body — causes the tan. While some melanin is perfectly normal and is what gives a person’s skin its color, the AAD says any increase in the natural level of melanin in a person’s skin is a sign of potential damage.

The only healthy way to achieve a tan, according to the AAD, is with the use of self-tanning lotions.

Another precaution is to avoid being outside during the peak sun intensity hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. These are times when the sun’s rays are the strongest and the most damaging to the skin.

Some conditions, such as age, certain diseases, pregnancy, and some medications also can effect how a person’s skin responds to the sun.

As people age, their skin tends to thin, Chan said, meaning it has fewer defenses against damage. Without those defenses, the cells are at greater risk of becoming cancerous.

Some disease processes like diabetes, heart failure and heart disease affect a person’s blood flow and can slow healing from damage, she added.

So it’s especially important for snowbirds, who spend more time enjoying outdoor activities in sunnier places, to protect their skin, Chan said.

Some medications, including some antibiotics, antidepressants, antihistamines and antihypertensives, can cause excessive sun sensitivity.

People like the sun, Chan said, especially when so many months of the year in Minnesota are cold, but it’s important to take steps to prevent skin damage.

And if there’s ever any question about a suspicious spot or patch on a person’s skin, it’s better to get it checked by a physician than to ignore it.

“If they have any lesion they’re concerned about, we can always see them,” she said.

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