Protecting Yourself from the Sun’s Harmful Rays
By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the world – more common than breast cancer and more common than prostate cancer – affecting at least 2.5 million people worldwide and 1.5 million Mexicans annually, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
In fact, one in every five Mexicans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
And while slow-progressing basal and squamous cell skin cancers can usually be caught and treated long before they pose a lethal threat to patients, nearly 3 percent are melanomas, one of the deadliest cancers of all, killing about 5.000 Mexicans every year.
In Mexico, less than 10 percent of melanoma cases are detected in the early stages.
But as alarming as the current – and, sadly, rapidly growing – incidence of these malignancies is, most skin cancer can be avoided with the proper use of sunscreens and sun blocks.
“The application of a reliable sunscreen with at least a 30+ SPF should be a part of every person’s daily routine,” said derma-oncologist Valeria Montserrat Gómez Molinal of Mexico City’s Hospital San Ángel Universidad during a skin cancer conference organized the Spanish-based derma-pharmaceutical laboratory Genové on Thursday, April 11.
“The only people who should not be using sun protection on a daily basis are children under 6 months.”
She added that while it is true to that sun has some very important beneficial properties such as helping your body to produce vitamin D, studies have shown that you only need about 15 minutes of exposure a week to fill your vitamin D quota.
Gómez Molinal explained that there is little difference between a SPF factor of 30 and 50, so for most people, 30+ is sufficient.
“A factor of 30+ protects you from about 96 percent of rays, while a factor of 50+ protects you from 98 percent of rays,” she said.
Not only does sunscreen protect against the harmful rays that can cause cancer, it also prevents premature aging, she said.
“There are no two factors that age you faster than the sun and tobacco,” Gómez Molinal said.
But while most Mexicans are aware of the importance of using sunscreen, less than 10 percent use it daily.
“Even those people who do apply sunscreen regularly don’t always know how to apply it,” Gómez Molinal said.
“In the city, it should be reapplied very three or four hours, and if you are at the beach, where the UV radiation is multiplied by as much as three times due to reflection from the water and sand, you need to apply it every hour or two.”
Gómez Molinal also recommended using a water-resistant sunscreen at the beach since most people will get wet.
“Make sure that your sunscreen is a broad-spectrum one that will protect against both UVA and UVB rays,” she said.
That’s important because both types of rays can contribute to skin cancer.
UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin, damaging the DNA in deeper skin cells, while UVB rays harm upper layers of the skin.
“When you are outdoors, try to stay in shaded areas as much as possible,” she said.
“This will reduce your exposure to UV rays by about half.”
Another tip Gómez Molinal gave was to be sure to use a generous portion of sunscreen every time you apply, and be sure to apply it to all exposed skin, including ears, nose, feet and back.
“In Mexico, the most common parts of the body to get skin cancer are the feet and back,” she said.
It is best to apply sunscreen about 20 minutes before you go outside, and applying a reparative after-sun cream such as Genové’s Genosun Reparador Dérmico Post Solar (suitable for all ages) can help prevent blisters and inflammation after exposure.
Gómez Molinal said that it is particularly important to apply sunscreen to children, who tend to spend more time outside than grownups.
“The effects of sun exposure are accumulative,” she said.
“A full 70 percent of the radiation a person is exposed to during their lifetime occurs during the first 18 years of life.”
Even a mild sunburn in childhood can double the risk of getting skin cancer for later in life, she said.
“We are seeing far more cases of skin cancer today than we did even a decade ago, and we are seeing them much earlier in life.” Gómez Molinal said.
“It used to be that skin cancer would occur in a person’s 50s or later, but now we are seeing cases in people in the early 40s.”
As ozone levels are depleted, the atmosphere loses more and more of its protective filter function and more solar UV radiation reaches the earth’s surface, she explained.
Just 10 percent decrease in ozone levels will result in an additional 300,000 non-melanoma and 4,500 melanoma skin cancer cases each year.
“The type of sunscreen you choose is up to you,” Gómez Molinal said, “but people with oil skin should generally opt for a gel or spray, and people with dry skin will find a cream sunscreen will help moisturize their skin.”
Finally, Gómez Molinal said that it is important to check your body for moles and other unusual growth often, and to consult a dermatologist at least once a year.
If you do discover any unusual or asymmetric lesion, you should consult your physician immediately, she said.
Skin cancer is treatable and curable, even melanoma, but only if detected early.
“The best defense against both skin cancer and premature aging is to limit your exposure to sun and apply a good sunscreen often,” Gómez Molinal said.
“It only takes a minute or two to apply sunscreen, and doing it can help keep your skin healthy.”
The ABCs of Moles
Dermatologists suggest that you check your skin monthly, and knowing what to look for in a mole or freckle can help you figure out when to seek medical help.
Here is a simple ABC guide of warning signs:
A is for asymmetry – half of a mole or freckle is darker than the other half.
B for border – the edges are irregular, blurred or jagged.
C is for color – inconsistent color, patches of brown, black, red or pink.
D for diameter – most melanomas are larger than a pencil eraser, about 1/4 inch.
E for elevation – a mole that is elevated or raised above the level of the skin should be considered suspicious.