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It's important to protect your skin year-round (yes, even in Wisconsin). But with warmer weather and longer days, summer's the time to be extra vigilant about skin safety.
UW Health dermatologist Dr. Apple Bodemer, who has a sub-specialty in Integrative Health, shares some tips on how to protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays, and the most powerful tools for early detection of skin cancer.
Skin care basics in the summer
Bodemer recommends everyone approach daily skin care using these three steps:
1. Apply (and reapply) sunscreen.
Bodemer recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that provides both UVA and UVB protection, with an SPF protection of 30 or above. And no matter the SPF, always reapply every two hours. She says the biggest sunscreen mistakes people of all ages make are not putting enough on the first time, and not reapplying later. A good rule of thumb is to use about one ounce at a time to cover your entire body. (That means a six-to-eight-ounce bottle shouldn't last you even half the summer.)
2. Avoid the midday sun, generally between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
If your shadow is shorter than you are, Bodemer suggests, search out some shade.
3. Wear protective clothing.
Did you know certain types and brands of clothing can are made to block many of the sun's rays? Look for clothing that's labeled UPF 50, which means it's been proven to block all but 1/50th of UV rays. Bodemer also recommends wearing a wide-brimmed hat (as opposed to a baseball cap) to protect not only the sensitive top of your head, but also your ears and the back of your neck.
What if you do get burned?
So what happens if you didn't take Bodemer's advice and find yourself sunburned? She said once you're already red, the next step is to protect your skin as soon as possible to minimize further damage. She recommends taking ibuprofen to reduce discomfort, and applying aloe or other skin-soothing products to calm irritated skin.
For many people, issues with skin damage date back years, even decades, thanks to spending summer after summer without any protection. Bodemer said the risk of developing skin cancer grows over time, because the damage accumulates each and every time skin is exposed to UV rays. And the risk of melanoma increases even more with high-intensity exposure, the kind that might manifest as serious burning or blistering.
The risk of tanning booths
Tanning booths, however, pose an even greater risk, especially among young people. Young women who are at the highest risk for developing serious skin cancers also tend to be the most frequent users of tanning beds.
Bodemer sees a trend of more young people developing skin cancers — especially women. The damage done by tanning booths significantly accelerates the aging process and greatly increases the risk of developing melanoma.
"I won't sugar-coat it: I think they're terrible," Bodemer said. "More people get skin cancer from tanning booths, than get lung cancer from smoking. And I think it's appalling that they're still available. Bottom line? Just don't do it."
Early detection and self-checks: 5 minutes a month
Five minutes a month. That's how often Bodemer recommends performing a self-check so you can be aware of what's normal for your body, and keep an eye out for changes. "Skin self-checks are really the most powerful tool you have for early detection of skin cancers," Bodemer said. "About half of melanomas are found by a patient or their partner. And when you catch it early, it can make a big difference in terms of treatment."
There are two types of skin cancers: non-melanoma, which is further broken down into basal cell and squamous cell cancers, and melanoma. The first two, basal cell and squamous cell, are most common among otherwise healthy people who've spent years in the sun without protection. These types of cancer are not life-threatening, but can require extensive surgery, often on or around the patient's face.
Melanoma, however, can show up on parts of the body that aren't exposed to the sun. It is less common, but when it does occur, it can be deadly.
Self-checks can be as easy as using a wall mirror or a hand mirror to scan your skin for five minutes every month. This is especially important for people with a history of unprotected sun exposure, though Bodemer admits that for someone with a lot of sun damage or moles, a self-check might seem overwhelming at first.
"I have some patients say they can't do it, because they don't know what they're looking for," she said. "But the more you do it, and the more you get comfortable with your own skin … the more likely you'll be to notice something that's new or changing.
"If you notice something's different, or growing, bring it up to your primary care physician or your dermatologist, who can examine it appropriately."
Extra caution for kids
Bodemer said parents need to be particularly vigilant exposing children to the sun.
It's recommended babies under six months old experience no direct UV exposure. After six months, it's safer to bring infants into the sun, but parents should always apply sunscreen, and look for products that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, and are specially labeled as for babies.
Adults commonly don't apply enough sunscreen, or they forget to reapply — mistakes that can be even more common with a squirmy, active toddler. The advice is the same: Reapply every two hours, and, if you or your little one is playing in the water, reapply every time you towel off.
Many parents express concerns about the safety of the sunscreen itself, and Bodemer recommends looking for products that are labeled hypoallergenic for babies (which also work well for adults with sensitive skin.)
A note about Vitamin D
Most people already get enough unprotected exposure to UV rays, and Vitamin D, during the day as our sunscreen wears off, Bodemer said. So as for getting enough of the nutrient — which is important for overall health, and has been shown to prevent some cancers and improve mental health — Bodemer suggests trying supplements instead.
"They're very safe," she said. "If you have concerns about your Vitamin D levels, talk to your primary doctor or provider to get checked out."
For those who have concerns, or just want to be in the sun without sunscreen, Bodemer still advises caution: Seek out sunshine earlier in the morning, or later in the day. She reminds us that all exposed skin is susceptible to UV damage, which leads to premature aging and skin cancer.
Dr. Bodemer's recommended links
Environmental Working Group (EWG.org) publishes a sunscreen guide each year, rating sunscreen products and addressing a range of concerns about sunscreens in general.
The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD.org) offers photo galleries and video tutorials to walk you through doing your own skin self-checks.
Wisconsin Public Radio's Larry Meiller interviewed Dr. Apple Bodemer on the topic of " Protecting Your Skin From The Sun." Listen to their full conversation on wpr.org