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Health Information Protecting Your Skin From the Sun

As summer approaches, many of us regret skipping the gym last winter in favor of beer and pizza with friends or yet another rerun of Law & Order. Most of us, however, probably aren't cursing ourselves for skipping the sunscreen.

But the truth is, while swimsuit season comes and goes, sunscreen season is all year round. The main reason: The sun's cancer-causing rays can be deadly, with one American dying every hour of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

But let's put the gloom and doom aside and look at the bright side: Many skin cancers can be prevented. One approach: Stay out of the sun. That strategy, though, isn't quite realistic. Covering up by wearing hats, sunglasses and long sleeves; avoiding sun exposure during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.; and slathering on the sunscreen is a far more reasonable approach, says Mark Hoffman, MD, a dermatologist at Rush University Medical Center.

Seems simple, and yet many don't have the facts about sun exposure and protection. So Hoffman offers a few insights:

Rules regarding SPF

Sun protection factor, or SPF, indicates how long sunscreen protects you from the sun's ultraviolet rays. SPF 30 should be adequate for most people in that it blocks 97 percent of UVB rays; however, dermatologists may recommend that some patients (such as those with heightened sensitivity to the sun) use a sunscreen with a higher SPF number. To determine the SPF number that’s best for you, Hoffman says, talk to your dermatologist.

The most important tip: Always use a broad spectrum sunscreen, such as one containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, that safeguards against both UVA and UVB radiation. The Food and Drug Administration now requires that sunscreens offer both UVA and UVB protection to be labeled "broad spectrum." In addition, only broad spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher will be identified as products that can reduce the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging. Sunblocks with an SPF between 2 and 14, whether they're broad spectrum or not, can claim only to help prevent sunburn.

And don't forget, sunscreen loses its potency over time, so check the expiration date on the bottle and update your sunscreen supply accordingly.

Clouds are not a sunscreen

Clouds are powerless against the sunburn-causing ultraviolet (UV) rays, so resist the urge to skip the sunscreen on overcast days. Think that 100-year-old oak tree provides an adequate respite from the sun? Think again. "UV rays can reflect off water, sand and snow, so it's possible to get sunburned even while relaxing in the shade," Hoffman says. And remember, sun can damage your skin any time of year, so protect yourself even when the temperatures dip.

Lather up before you hit the sun

Your skin needs time to absorb sunscreen for it to work effectively, so don't wait until you're already outside to pour it on. Apply sunscreen at least 20 to 30 minutes before stepping outside.

With everyone at risk, everyone should take precautions

While it's true that skin cancers occur most often in light skinned individuals, those with dark skin can also be affected by these deadly diseases. "In fact, blacks with skin cancer often don't get diagnosed until the cancer has advanced, making the disease potentially more lethal," says Hoffman. Particular areas of concern for blacks: places on the skin with little or no pigmentation, including the palms of the hands and bottoms of the feet. So regardless of your skin tone, play it safe and wear sunscreen — even on parts of your body that aren't directly exposed to the sun.

No sunscreen is waterproof or sweatproof

According to FDA's new rules, which will be implemented in 2012, companies can no longer claim their sunscreens are "waterproof" or "sweatproof." Manufacturers will be allowed to claim that a sunblock is "water resistant," but they must first test the product to identify how many minutes it remains effective when a person is swimming or sweating; the amount of time a product is water resistant can be put on the label.

"We know that sunscreen eventually wears off when you're in the water," says Sheetal Mehta, MD, a dermatologist at Rush. "Most people think that if they use sunscreen that claims to be waterproof, then go into a pool and come out, they're OK. But people should put on sunscreen every two hours while they're outside, whether or not they're sweating or in the water. Now, with the FDA's new rules, the public will have a better understanding of what works and what doesn't."

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Please note: All physicians featured in Discover Rush Online are on the medical faculty of Rush University Medical Center. Some of the physicians featured are in private practice and, as independent practitioners, are not agents or employees of Rush University Medical Center.

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