Summertime Sun Safety

By: Philip Stewart Email
By: Philip Stewart Email

June 22, 2007

Friday marked the start of the first official weekend of summer. That means more people and their families may be spending more time in the sun. Doctors want you to know more about how to protect yourself against the dangers of sun damage or even skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, but doctors say it is also one of the most easily preventable cancers.

Charlie Flora, 81, grew up in the Charlottesville area and is a skin cancer survivor. He's had it three times.

"I've never been a sun bather, so that's not the source," said Flora, just after an appointment with his dermatologist at UVA.

But like many people, Flora admits as a child he spent lots of time in the sun.

He explained that in his day there were few option to protect oneself from the sun. "You could wear a hat, and stay out of the sun, but you really didn't know that much about what it could do to you," he said.

But now people do know about the dangers of sun exposure. And there are countless sun-blocking products on the market. But they're not all created equal. The sun produces both UVA and UVB rays. Both can lead to skin damage or skin cancer. But some sunscreens only protect against one kind of ray, So consumers should look closely at sunblock labels.

"It is good to have a sunscreen that is 'broad spectrum,' that covers both UVA and UVA light, and that is applied properly and that is applied frequently," said Dr. Mark Russell, an associate professor of Dermatology at UVA. Russell also added that the wording 'broad spectrum' will appear on products that block both UVA and UVB rays.

Russell, who has been practicing for about ten years, said adults should use about 2 tablespoons of sunscreen every time they apply it. He also added that it should be applied at least every two hours. But if you are spending time in water, or perspiring apply it even more frequently, especially on children.

"We feel like about 80% of your sun exposure happens before you're 20-years old, so it's especially important to protect the kids," said Russell.

Early prevention is vital. According to the National Cancer Institute, about 1 in 5 Americans will get skin cancer. More than a million new cases are expected in 2007, but only about 2,000 will be fatal.

It's a sign that more and more people are taking the warnings seriously, and getting abnormalities on their skin checked by a physician.

"If we would at least have people moderate their sun exposure, we could get a nice compromise between what they like and what's safe," said Russell.

The numbers are also a result of early detection, which patients and doctors say is key.

"I was lucky," said Flora. "I had good treatment and early detection."

And as for the sun protection factor, or SPF, it is a measure of how long a person can stay in the sun with sunblock, versus without sunblock before they turn red. Doctors said that means the amount of protection is different for different people.

There is also no limit to the amount of protection you can get from sunscreens, but as the SPF level gets higher, the percentage of protection only increases a small amount.

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