By Dr. Carol Cola
of Pottstown Memorial Medical Center
POTTSTOWN PA – Before heading outdoors to enjoy the long summer days, be properly armed with all the essentials for spending time in the sun, safely. You’ll want a pair of sunglasses, a hat and, most importantly, a good sunscreen.
In addition to premature aging, excessive sun exposure puts health at risk. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than one million cases diagnosed each year. Melanoma cases – the most serious and fastest-growing type of skin cancer – have doubled in the past 20 years.
If found and treated early, melanoma has a high cure rate – about 99 percent – according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. It’s better to prevent it, though.
Around 90 percent of skin cancers occur on the head, neck, ears, lips or hands … areas that are in the sun most often. Other factors that play a role in skin cancer risk include age, complexion (light-skinned people have the greatest risk), any prior family history of skin cancer, and geographic location of the country (the sunny Southern states are a hot spot for increased cancer risk).
A sunburn can happen anywhere, not just at the park or the pool. Exposure to sun occurs while driving, through a glass window at home, or reflected off another surface such as concrete, sand or snow. The good news: it’s never too late to begin protecting your skin.
Recent studies by the Skin Cancer Foundation state that the average individual has received only 23 percent of lifetime sun exposure by age 18, not 80 percent as formerly thought. Consequently, there’s always a health benefit to be gained by beginning new habits.
For adequate coverage, start with a good sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. The number refers to the product’s ability to protect the skin, for the amount of time it takes to burn unprotected skin versus sunscreen-protected skin. For example, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 allows those outside to spend 30 times longer in the sun without burning.
Be sure to choose a sunscreen with both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B rays (UVB) protection, also called a ‘broad spectrum’ sunscreen.
Ultraviolet rays affect skin differently. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, causing DNA and collagen damage. UVB rays, on the other hand, are shorter, more intense rays that cause skin color changes (such as a burn or tan). Both can quicken skin aging, and also play roles in the development of skin cancer.
Protect skin all day, but especially between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.; that’s the prime time for sunburns. Remember that it’s still possible to get a sunburn on cloudy days too. Apply plenty of sunscreen (about an ounce, which is the equivalent of a shot glass of lotion), 20 to 30 minutes before going outdoors, and reapply frequently – about every two hours – particularly after exercise or water activities.
Keep an eye on freckles, moles and other spots on the skin, and show any changes to a doctor or dermatologist. Warning signs to look for include a mole, birthmark or brown spot that over time changes color or texture, increases in size or thickness, has irregular outlines, or is bigger than 6 millimeters or a quarter-inch (the size of a pencil eraser).
Also, any spot or sore that itches, hurts, crusts, scabs or bleeds, or an open sore that does not heal, should be brought to a doctor’s attention.
Carol Cola, D.O. is a member of the medical staff, department of surgery, at Pottstown Memorial Medical Center. She is a graduate of The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, and completed a rotating internship at The Hospital of The Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She served a dermatology residency at The Dermatology Center, Philadelphia. Dr. Cola also completed a fellowship in Mohs Micrographic Surgery at Dermatology Associates of Tulsa OK. Dr. Cola’s practice has offices at 933 N. Charlotte St., Pottstown PA, and 599 Arcola Rd., Collegeville PA.