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Healthy Living

The Lowdown on the Sun

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 05/27/2011
Last Updated: 05/29/2019

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Yesterday when I was at the gym, I couldn't help but notice a fair-skinned teenage girl who reminded me somewhat of my younger self. Except her skin was smooth and flawless. I'll bet she never sits in the sun, I thought. She won't wrinkle early, that's for sure. And her skin, no doubt, will remain without blotches, wrinkles and freckles for a long, long time.

When I think back to the things I did as a teenager and beyond, I have one big regret. And I'm reminded of it every time I look in the mirror.

That's when I see the spots, blotches and wrinkling—things I didn't know about (or necessarily care about, for that matter) when I used to bake outside in the sun for hours and hours. The result? Many trips to the dermatologist over the years, many suspicious growths, many biopsies.

And it's about this time each year, with Memorial Day weekend approaching, that I wish I knew then what I know now.

If I could have a talk with my younger self, here's what I'd tell her:

  • Everyone, regardless of age or skin type, needs to wear sunscreen when they can't avoid sun exposure.
  • Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States; each year there are more new cases of it than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.
  • One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.
  • Even if you work inside, you can be exposed to ultraviolet radiation for brief periods throughout the day. UVA rays are not blocked by most windows.
  • UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply, are the ones associated with aging. They also exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of the UVB rays and can be responsible for skin cancer on their own (it was previously thought that UVB rays were the main culprit).
  • Even on cloudy or cold days, you need sunscreen. Up to 40 percent of the sun's damaging rays can reach the earth on a completely cloudy day.

It's never too late to learn. Here's what I want to tell myself (and all of you) today:

Don't think that if you've overdone it with the sun when you were a kid, you can't do anything about it now. A recent study showed that we get less than 25 percent of our total sun exposure by the time we're 18.

Most of us are using way too little sunscreen. You need to apply 1 ounce, which is equivalent to about a full shot glass. Scary fact: studies show that most people apply much less than that amount, meaning that you are getting much less SPF protection than you think.

Skin checks are essential. If caught early, most skin cancer is easy to cure. Check your own skin monthly and have a trained professional do a full body exam annually (or more frequently depending on your history).

Know the warning signs:

  • A skin growth that increases in size.
  • A growth that looks pearly, translucent, tan, brown, black or multicolored.
  • A mole, birthmark, beauty mark or any brown spot that is irregular in outline, appears after age 21, is larger than the size of a pencil eraser or changes in size, texture, color or thickness.

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Also, Sheryl--I recommend applying sunscreen to your hands, neck, and decolletage every day. Those areas can make you look much older if you expose them to the sun a lot!

Yes, Nancy, you are so right! These are often spots that are forgotten and/or neglected - thanks.

The Campaing for safe cosmetics have the: 211 Sunscreen Guide that tell you the best and safest sunscreen. I got to know all this important information very late in life, but I put sunscreen in my face every day.

Thanks for pointing that out, Rosalba. I did a little digging and found the link:

I'm right there with you. Wish I knew then what I know now. I'm red haired and fair skinned and my siblings have had skin cancer, so I keep a mindful eye open.

If we were only as wise as we are now...but isn't that always the way? Lessons learned the hard way.

Living in Arizona, I have become extremely conscious of the dangers of skin cancer. I'm happy to seeing mom's routinely applying sunscreen to their kids, and making it a way of life.

With red hair and freckles, I cringe when I think about slathering on baby oil as a teenager and sitting in the sun. I might as well have just taken a blow torch to my body. But it's good to know it's never too late. I wear sunscreen now, protect myself pretty well, and never go outside in the high sun hours.

Ouch - baby oil. I remember people used to mix in iodine...
A blow torch pretty much describes it.

And people with light colored eyes and hair are at a higher risk, so they need to be even more careful. Hats are also important, because you can get skin cancer on your scalp.

Great points - couldn 't agree more, on both fronts.

Thankfully I never had the patience for sun tanning when I was younger--and frankly I never tanned anyway, just turned a lovely shade of rosy pink. But I can recall more than one swim meet were I came home absolutely toasted. I put on sunscreen every day now and rely on a bottle for my tan--self tanners have come a long way, thankfully! But I'm happy for the reminder. I've already had three moles removed and I have so many freckles on my arms I do make it a point to look for any changes.

You were a smart kid, Kristen! And I wish self-tanners were as good then as they are now; maybe I could have avoided the sun damage I got forever trying (and failing) to achieve the perfect tan.

I often look at my 6 year old and am amazed at how white I've been able to keep her skin. She has almost zero tan lines. It's really such a difference from when I was younger.

I seem to see a dermatologist on a regular basis these days. The price you pay for growing up in the Sydney sun, I guess. Thanks for the timely reminder.

Some sunscreen has been shown to cause cancer though. I think it's very important to wear the RIGHT sunscreen (without harsh chemicals, etc. Lots of info on this at Dr Mercola's site.) As a nation, we seem to be suffering from Vitamin D deficiency so some time outside without sun protection is necessary for our health!

I am stunned when I see people in their 20s and 30s out in the sun. With all the press over the past decade or more about skin cancer, it still shocks me that they'd take the risk! I wish I never ever went out in the sun to the extent I did, which was less than many of my friends. Still, for a fair-skinned person, I wish we'd known then what we know now!

Here in NZ we have a honking great hole in the ozone layer. Protecting ourselves from the sun is absolutely no joke. We wear hats and make sure to have sunscreen. Especially since there are new worries about the ingredients in a lot of sunscreens causing health problems, we choose the new transparent zinc sunscreens. A bit more expensive, but safer to use.


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