BY CARL V. WASHINGTON JR., MD
Associate Professor of Dermatology, Emory University School of Medicine, Co-Director of Dermatologic Surgery for Emory Healthcare.
Doctors who specialize in caring for the skin know it is a complicated, living organ system that fulfills important functional and aesthetic roles. The skin is the envelope that not only covers our body, but it is also the structure that gives rise to our hair, our nails and allows us to sense hot, cold and pressure.
Skin protects virtually all other organs, plays a key role in body temperature regulation and is equipped with myriad early warning systems. The skin serves as a barrier between germs, such as bacteria, and internal organs; and prevents the loss of too much water and other fluids.
With the important role skin plays in our health overall, dermatologists are always talking about protecting the skin by preventing problems whenever and wherever possible. We all want our skin to look its best as we age, and many products are available to keep our skin supple and healthy as well as prevent sun damage. But it is not just skin products that will help us with this goal. Our lifestyle behaviors when we are outdoors will make a big difference in protecting our skin.
Most importantly, remember that the main cause of skin cancer is the sun. Sunlamps and tanning booths can also cause skin cancer. Anyone can get cancer, but people with fair skin that freckles easily are at greatest risk.
Most skin cancers are considered non-melanoma and usually develop on sun-exposed areas of the body, like the face, ear, neck, lips and the backs of the hands. A more serious form of skin cancer is called melanoma — a cancer that begins in the cells that produce the skin coloring or pigment known as melanin.
Knowing key risk factors for non-melanoma and melanoma skin cancers is a start in taking care of your skin. Risk factors include:
Some prevention tips to live by include:
Limit time in the sun. Try to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is when the sun’s rays are strongest. Remember, the sun’s rays can pass through clouds and you can also get sunburned if you are in water, so be careful when you are in a pool, lake or the ocean. Avoid tanning. Don’t use sunlamps or tanning beds.
Use sunscreen. This is probably one of the most important and difficult tips to remember. Even in the winter, exposure to the sun’s rays speeds up the aging process in the skin. This exposure increases the risk of developing dry skin, wrinkles, age spots and spider veins. Daily use of a sunscreen can slow these sun-induced signs of aging and reduce the risk of developing skin cancer. Dermatologists recommend wearing a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 15 or higher on all skin that will be exposed. Water resistant sunscreen stays on your skin even if you get wet or sweat a lot, but it isn’t waterproof and needs to be put on about every two hours.
Wear protective clothing. A hat with a wide brim can shade your neck, ears, eyes and head. Look for sunglasses that block 99 to 100 percent of the sun’s rays. If you have to be in the sun, wear loose, lightweight, long-sleeved shirts and long pants or long skirts.
Following all of these recommendations, however, can lead to lower vitamin D levels. Vitamin D, which our bodies can produce after relatively brief exposure to the sun, helps regulate the amount of calcium and phosphorus in our bodies. So, look to vitamin D supplements as the preferred way of getting enough vitamin D – not increased sun exposure.