The Dangers of Sun Worship
Do you know how many people on a busy summer beach are at risk for skin cancer?
The answer: All of them.
When my father first established his excavating business in the 1960s, the last thought on his mind was to prime himself with sunscreen before heading out to face the elements for 11 hours a day, 360 days a year. While always considered handsome, he became so “seasoned” that his swarthy, rugged appearance made him look as though he were more Eskimo rather than of Welsh lineage.
Healthy (and still handsome) at the age of 81, he has, unfortunately, undergone the knife many times to repeatedly remove layers of malignant basal cell carcinoma lesions from his ears, nose and forehead. If only he could have known then what he knows now about the sun’s effects on the skin.
Forty years later, you would think that we’re much more knowledgeable about the dangers of too much sun exposure. But you would be wrong. According to the American Cancer Society, the incidence of skin cancer is on the rise and now accounts for 2% of all cancer-related deaths. Since the majority of beach-going sun worshippers are usually women, they make up a large part of these statistics. In fact, melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer, is the most frequent form of cancer occurring in women between the ages of 25 and 29. For women over 35, the rate of melanoma occurrence is second only to that of breast cancer.
Before we continue, let’s give the brightest object in our solar system its due. Sunshine is good for us—in reasonable doses. Just 10 to 15 minutes of daily exposure from our golden life-giving orb enables our bodies to manufacture vitamin D, stimulates natural immunity and hormone production, and is responsible for the synthesis of the pigment melanin, the skin’s natural sunscreen. And let’s face it: A lightly sun-kissed glow looks good on anyone. However, if your idea of being one of the “beautiful people” means striving for the perfectly bronzed birthday suit each summer season, then you could be one of the 59,580 Americans expected to be diagnosed with skin cancer this year.
The ABC and Ds of Skin Cancer
There are three major types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and melanoma. BCCs and SCCs are by far the most commonly diagnosed and are the most treatable. While malignant, the cells are less likely to encroach on neighboring tissues and organs via the bloodstream. Malignant melanoma, however, is a highly aggressive cancer that easily spreads to other parts of the body and is fatal if left untreated.
Like many cancers, skin cancers start out as precancerous lesions, which are not necessarily life-threatening at first but may become so later on. Small, pearl-like bumps with a central depression occurring on the head, neck or shoulders, often mistaken for sores that don’t heal, could turn out to be BCCs. The appearance of rough, brown, scaly patches may indicate a condition known as actinic keratosis, which can develop into SCC. Changes in the shape of moles, or the appearance of a new mole, while rare, can suggest the presence of dysplastic nevi, which may eventually progress to melanoma.
How do you know when to seek medical attention? Here’s an easy-to-remember ABCD guide to help you to identify a suspected skin anomaly:
* Asymmetry: The sides of a lesion do not look the same.
* Border Irregularity: A lesion’s borders may be uneven or irregular.
* Color: Melanomas may be a combination of colors, including red, white, blue, brown and black.
* Diameter: Cancerous lesions are usually larger than 6 mm, or roughly the size of a pencil eraser.
Some researchers suggest adding the letter E, as in “evolving.” Evolving moles are those that change in size or color, or start to bleed or itch.
How the Sun Gets Under Your Skin
The fun in the sun stops when we suffer from excessive exposure. Aside from the potential for a painful burn, the disturbance of genetic material and cell mutation lead to the development of skin cancer, and those factors are not readily apparent. Add the fact that the earth’s protective ozone layer has been steadily eroding, allowing more of the sun’s harmful rays to reach the surface, and you’ve got a recipe that will surely cook your skin.
The sun’s energy is released as differing wavelengths of light, specifically ultraviolet rays (UVs), a wave form just barely higher than the violet of visible light.
UVB rays, known as the “burning rays,” affect the uppermost layers of skin, and can actually damage DNA directly or cause free-radical damage and cell mutation. UVA rays, dubbed the “silent killers,” penetrate further and destroy the underlying collagen matrix. UVC rays are considered the most dangerous, causing damage with even short exposure. Since nearly 70% of all UV exposure stems from daily activities such as walking, jogging and driving (yes, UV rays can pass through glass), it’s important to wear a sunscreen product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more each day, year-round. SPF 15 filters 92% of UVB.
Do you know what SPF means or how it works? No? That’s okay. You’re not alone.
SPF indicates how long your skin will be protected from the sun’s rays based on your burn rate. The math to determine this would be: SPF x typical burn rate = your shelf life in the sun. For example, if you usually begin to show signs of burning without protection within 15 minutes at midday, then a product with an SPF of 15 will protect you for 225 minutes (15 x 15), or 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Don’t lull yourself into thinking that you can simply reapply more sunscreen and stay out longer. When your SPF number is up, it’s time to retreat indoors. So, if you’re planning to spend an entire day at the beach or park, use a sunscreen with an SPF of 25 or higher that offers a longer window of protection.
Sunblocks and Sunscreens
When people purchase a product to guard them against the sun, most don’t know the difference between a sunblock and a sunscreen. Sunblocks contain mineral salts, such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (the whitest substance known on earth) to scatter the sun’s rays and reflect them away from your tender skin. Sunscreens, on the other hand, filter most UV light, allowing harmless wavelengths to pass.
The only FDA-approved natural sunscreen component is PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid), a vitamin B derivative. Other agents commonly found in sunscreen products are from natural sources and include octyl methoxycinnamate (obtained from cinnamon or cassia), octyl salicylate (derived from sweet birch, wintergreen and willow), and other botanicals that offer anti-inflammatory or antioxidant qualities, such as aloe vera, black walnut, milk thistle, green tea extract, chamomile, eucalyptus and mint.
A number of studies have demonstrated that many botanical-based ingredients are effective when applied to the skin before and after sun exposure. For example, aloe vera has repeatedly demonstrated an ability to speed the healing of burned skin. Some studies suggest that aloe stimulates new cell growth and may possibly block UVB rays. Silymarin, the main constituent of milk thistle, has been shown to reduce the number and size of UV-induced skin tumors in mouse skin.
Researchers have become very excited about the potential of green tea in preventing skin cancer. A study by the University of Minnesota Hormel Institute (and presented at a July 2003 American Association for Cancer Research meeting) revealed that an enzyme called JNK-2 appears to be directly related to skin cancer development by causing normal skin cells to become cancerous. This enzyme is elevated by just a few minutes of sun exposure, but levels drop fairly quickly if the exposure is kept to a minimum. However, with long-term exposure, a permanent increase in JNK-2 results.
Green tea contains a potent polyphenolic antioxidant, namely epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). The researchers tested a topical polyphenol-containing solution extracted from green tea on cultured mice and human skin cells and found that it may reduce levels of JNK-2 in the skin and inhibit the reaction that causes tumors to form.
Recent discoveries have found that certain nutrients may be highly effective at preventing the damage caused by UV light. Several studies have found that supplemental free-form lutein at 6-12 mg per day, together with moderate levels of other antioxidants such as vitamins A, C and E, can reduce UV damage by 30% to 40%. (Dietary lutein is known to protect the retina of the eyes by filtering out harmful UV blue light.)
Another promising nutrient is superoxide dismutase (SOD), a protective enzyme; in research, SOD has shown multiple protective effects on skin damage caused by the environment. It was recently discovered that when SOD is combined with a wheat protein called gliadin, the duo form a significant defense against sunburns, sun allergy and other reactions such as pruritus, solar eczema and rashes.
Is Sunless Tanning An Option?
Many tanning salon attendants will have you believe that you’re perfectly safe turning yourself into a Brown Betty in a tanning bed or booth for 20 minutes at a time, which is the maximum allowable by regulations under the federal Radiation Emitting Devices Act (appropriately acronymed as the RED Act). Don’t believe it. It’s a myth.
The truth is, artificial sources of solar radiation carry the same risks as natural sunlight exposure. If you must visit a tanning salon, limit yourself to a maximum of five to eight minutes, no more than one or two times a week. And, wear a sunscreen to filter the most harmful rays. You’ll still get your color; you’ll just be doing it smarter.
Many salons also tout the use of “tanning accelerators” rather than sunscreens. These products contain a natural enzyme that stimulates the production of melanin (the body’s natural tan-creating enzyme) with exposure to UV rays but have not proven to be effective. In fact, the FDA is currently scrutinizing these products and they may be banned in the future.
Have fun out there, but be safe. Remember your ABCDs, grab your daily SPF lotion and don’t forget your sun visor!