By Sara McAninch
Summertime skin care is all about protection
It’s June and the siren song of the sun calls to you. Maybe you have kids and all they want to do is channel their inner mermaids and aquamen. Gone are the days of slathering yourself in baby oil to fry like an egg; the new summer cool is a bath of sun protection factor lotions and sprays. Strap on your water wings and head outside, but not before reading the reminders of how to protect yourself from long-term damage, the risks of too much ultraviolet exposure, and repair tips for your skin after extended outdoor time.
During those blissful moments of basking in the sun, whether you’re lying on a beach, splashing in a backyard pool, playing an outdoor sport or weeding your garden, it’s easy to forget to put on sunscreen and other protective gear. Over time, even a few misses here and there can lead to big consequences later.
The No. 1 sign of too much UV exposure is a sunburn. Even on days when it’s overcast, there’s a risk of at least a first-degree burn. Dr. Juliana Meyer, a melanoma expert and breast cancer surgeon with Franciscan Health, recommends keeping yourself protected year-round. “The best thing I say is year-round, on exposed areas — so mostly face and hands — to wear a moisturizer with SPF in it,” she says.
While a few minor sunburns or tanning here and there might not seem like a big deal, every burn can lead to something much worse: skin cancer. Your chances of getting melanoma go up if you’ve had multiple sunburns that blister, frequent burns or significant sun poisoning. The age at which you get any of these can also contribute. (There’s more time for the damage to progress if you’re younger.)
In addition to sunburn, biological factors can contribute to getting skin cancer. Dr. Laura Stitle, a dermatologist at Greenwood Dermatology, says that individuals with “light eyes, light hair and light skin” are at the highest risk. She also says that a family history of skin cancer can increase your chances of getting it.
To be proactive about skin cancer prevention and treatment, Meyer recommends making “a skin check part of your yearly wellness.” Especially once you hit your mid-30s, she advises seeing a dermatologist or other trained professional who can perform the exam. When determining if that mole or lesion on your body is cancerous, she says to think about your ABCDs.
While you’re not expected to sing the alphabet song, these letters are important to remember. They stand for asymmetry, border irregularity, color differences (where one part of the mole or lesion looks different than the other parts and can include scaling or ulcers), and diameter. Meyer says that in recent years E has been added to signify exposure. If it’s an area that’s been exposed to UV rays over the years, and you see a change in a mole, consider getting it checked.
So, if you see something, say something. “We want patients to check their moles and look for changes in the color and shape,” Stitle says. “Also, any spot that is itchy, red, scaling, bleeding or just won’t heal needs to be checked. A local dermatologist or primary care should be notified.”
There are several things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones from the sun’s damaging rays. Start by covering up. The quickest way to avoid turning pink is to keep yourself covered with a hat and other protective clothing.
Then, take care of your skin from the inside out. One of the most important factors in maintaining healthy skin is eating a good diet, especially one that’s “low in sugar and processed food,” Stitle says. Another prevention recommendation is to keep your skin hydrated.
“It’s amazing how much your diet and water intake can come out in your skin,” says Anjelica Nelson, an aesthetician at Urban Euphoria in Greenwood.
The easiest and most common way to save your skin is to wear sunscreen. Meyer says that men and women should wear a daily facial moisturizer with SPF 10 or 15 in it. For the rest of your body she says SPF 30 is enough to block 97 percent of the sun’s UV rays. Meyer and Stitle agree that mineral-based products — ones with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — are better than chemical-based ones because, to be effective, the latter require a chemical reaction between the product and your skin. When looking for zinc or titanium, check the active ingredients list on the packaging; either of these should be at the top of the list.
“I like the zinc oxide-based ones because they provide complete UV coverage. It is important to reapply every two hours, especially when swimming and sweating,” says Stitle.
If you have children in your care while soaking up sun, Meyer has the following to say: “Put kids in a rash guard and coat them up with sunscreen before they go out to play. Get them used to hats and sunscreen. All of those things are really important.”
Because young children have a higher body surface area, which is the measurement of the skin that covers your body, Stitle recommends using zinc-based products to “limit the amount of chemical sunscreens that are applied.”
You have your SPF 30, so where should you apply it? In addition to your face, Meyer says you should be slathering sunblock on your hands, tops of your feet and head, especially if you have thinning hair.
And don’t forget these often-overlooked spots: “The back of the neck and the ears are places patients often forget to apply sunscreen,” Stitle says. “These areas are chronically exposed to the sun, and we do see a lot of skin cancer.”
If you tend to wear shorts, don’t forget your lower limbs. “One of the most common places for women to get melanoma is their legs,” says Meyer. Another oft forgotten place is your back.
If you have sun-damaged skin, or if you tend to tan a lot, there are treatment options. According to Nelson, “The sun attacks your skin and makes your skin age so much faster.” She says regular facials can stimulate collagen, the protein that gives your face elasticity and a healthy glow. If you get a sunburn, there are calming products she can use during the facial to help you heal. She also recommends avoiding harsh ingredients, such as retinol, while your damaged epidermis heals.
Stitle suggests you use cool ice packs, hydrocortisone ointment and ibuprofen, and to drink extra water, to help your body heal faster. “It is also important to really protect the skin the next few days as it will be more sensitive after sunburn.”
While the temptation might be there to pick at your peeling skin, Meyer says to let it heal naturally. While the standard go-to of aloe to treat a burn works fine, she also advises using moisturizer on the affected area, keeping it clean and making sure it’s ventilated with lightweight, breathable clothing. If you have a severe burn, see your doctor as soon as possible to get a prescription topical treatment.
Getting outdoor time when the weather warms is great. Following some precautions and preventions will help you and your loved ones avoid long-term damage or worse.