We love the sun. It makes us feel good. It showers is with Vitamin D, raises our spirits, warms us and for those blessed with good skin pallor, gives us a tan. It's what we strive for on many vacation trips as we flock to sun-blessed spots around the globe.
I was born with what I call the Irish Curse, the fairest skin this side of being an albino. If I'm not careful, I can look like I was caught in a nuclear reactor accident. As I write this, I look at my face to see remnants of a scar from the removal of basal cell carcinoma. It's a reminder that I will have to be careful for the rest of my life when going outdoors.
And it's why you should be careful too, no matter how dark skinned you may be.
The reason is because skin cancer is cumulative. When we suffer a sunburn, it's not an isolated incident. Every time we scorch ourselves by laying out, we add to an account of damaged skin cells. Every burn, every day of exposure to unprotected skin increases the likelihood that we will develop skin cancer. It's something my dermatologist and plastic surgeon both pounded into my pointed little head: cover yourself. They not only told me that, but urged me to share this message with everyone that I can.
That includes you.
We grew up with the notion that we should get outside, and be the opposite of those antibellum ladies strolling with parasols covering themselves. While we can laugh at the ladies of the past and their fine, lilly white skin, they might have been on to something. When you go out, do the following:
1. Put on sunscreen. Every. Time. My doctors recommend a broad spectrum SPF of 70+. As I train on a bike, I use a sweat+water resistant version (in my case, by Aveeno), and I put it on whether I expect to be on my bike for several hours, or even out running errands. Make this a daily routine.
2. Wear a hat when you can. My standard apparel when not in a suit is to wear a baseball cap to protect my face, especially the area of my temple and eyelid where my skin cancer was removed, and other areas of my face where precancerous growths were burned off with liquid nitrogen. On other days, I wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect my entire head and back of my neck. I even have a ginourmous floppy hat (by a company named Sun Protection Zone) that completely covers my neck. I don't care that I look like a dork - I would be a dork, hat or no hat. I know better than to be negligent under the sun.
3. When swimming, wear a rash guard. We Americans think we have to wear the bare minimum to the beach. It's the way we've been brought up. But our friends down under in Australia know better. They know all too well the power of the sun, and even the most buff Australian men cover up when going to the beach. Swimming in salt or chlorine water can strip away sunscreen, and help the sun incinerate your back, face, arms and legs. Be smart. Get a rash guard.
4. When trekking outdoors, consider UPF protected clothing. Planning a hike? Backpacking? Going on long walks on your next trip? Look for companies that sell Ultraviolet Protection Factor-rated (UPF) garments. A number of the leading outdoor apparel manufacturers now market UPF-rated shirts, pants, hats, dresses and outerwear. If your next vacation will have you under the sun for an extended period, consider adding some of these to your packing list. Here's a good reason why: that cotton T-shirt or a light cotton blouse have an SPF of only 10, and an SPF of only 5 when wet. So while a shirt can give you a bit of protection, under the hot Mexican or Hawaiian sun, cotton can give you a false sense of protection. So search for UPF protected garments, especially if you're trekking in the tropics or at high altitude.
4. Be mindful of how long you're in the sun. Try to limit your full exposure to the sun, especially if you're headed to the tropics or the sunbelt. Here in Southern California, farm workers who toil under the Orange County sun cover themselves with hooded sweatshirts, even on hot days. Many are dark skinned, yet they cover themselves religiously. In areas such as Florida or even the US Midwest, where humidity adds a summer haze, the combination of sun and haze makes the burning UV rays even more deadly. So keep an eye on your watch and limit your maximum exposure.
We all want a tan. We all want to sport that healthy glow. But as we grow older, those many years laying out and playing under the sun add up. It's not just the I-look-like-a-grape wrinkles from worshiping the sun all summer. It's the cumulative potential for skin cancer that should be cause for concern. Skin cancer is not just topical; some forms of carcenoma can mutate and spread. Remember that.
So have fun under the sun. But please be mindful of its power, and be careful. Think ahead. Wear SPF 70+ sunscreen, even on cloudy days. Wear a hat. Bring something to cover yourself, and limit your exposure. It's not too hard to do.
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