Q: Why is the sun so bad for my skin?
A: Because the sun's rays, which are called ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays (UVA and UVB rays), damage your skin. Normal skin cells grow, divide and replace themselves. This keeps the skin healthy. The sun's rays damage these skin cells. This leads to early wrinkles, skin cancer and other skin problems. Being in the sun often over time, even if you don't burn, can lead to skin cancer. A tan is the body's attempt to protect itself from the sun's harmful rays.
Q: Are tanning beds safer than the sun?
A: No. Tanning beds use ultraviolet rays. Makers of the beds may claim that they use “harmless” UVA rays. But both UVA and UVB rays cause skin damage. While UVA rays take longer than UVB rays to damage the skin, they go deeper into the skin than UVB rays.
Q: Where is skin cancer most likely to occur?
A: Most skin cancers occur on parts of the body that are repeatedly exposed to the sun. These areas include the head, neck, face, tips of ears, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, chests of men, and the back and lower legs of women.
Q: How can I prevent skin cancer?
A: The key is to avoid being in the sun or using sunlamps. If you're going to be in the sun for any length of time, wear clothes made from tight-woven cloth so the sun's rays can't get through to your skin, and stay in the shade when you can. Wear a hat to protect your face, neck and ears, as well as sunglasses.
Remember that clouds and water won't protect you - 60% to 80% of the sun's rays can get through clouds and can reach swimmers at least one foot below the surface of the water. Snow, white sands and concrete can reflect the sun's rays and increase sun exposure.
Q: Should I use sunscreen?
A: Using sunscreen may or may not help lower your risk of skin cancer. Sunscreens may even raise the risk of skin cancer because people may stay in the sun longer if they think they're protected and so end up getting more sun overall. Also, many sunscreens only protect against UVB rays.
If you can't protect yourself by staying out of the sun or wearing the right kind of clothing, you may want to use sunscreen to help protect you. But don't think that you're completely safe from the sun just because you're wearing sunscreen. It's important to wear sunscreen when out in the sun, even in winter.
Q: How should sunscreen be used?
A: Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more, which has both UVA and UVB protection. If you're at a high altitude (such as in the mountains), if you plan to be outside a long time or if you sunburn easily, you may want to use a sunscreen with an SPF that's higher than 15.
Be sure you put the sunscreen everywhere the sun's rays might touch you, including your ears, the back of your neck and bald areas of your scalp. Put more on every hour if you're sweating or swimming.
It's okay to use sunscreen if you're pregnant. Sunscreen isn't recommended for use on babies younger than six months old. If your baby is this young, keep him or her out of the sun. Be very cautious with a baby at the beach, because reflected sunlight from sand and water can burn a baby's tender skin, even in the shade of a beach umbrella.
For more information on this and other health topics, visit the College of Family Physicians of Canada's (CFPC's) Web site www.cfpc.ca or talk to your family doctor.
If you have questions on this or other health topics you'd like to see addressed in future articles, please e-mail healthtopics@CFPC.ca.