Protecting Skin From The Sun

Although many Americans don't do enough to shield themselves from the sun, health officials warn that protecting your skin against potentially damaging rays can prevent a variety of health problems.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration tightened requirements for sunscreen lotion labeling in May 1999 and issued a "sun alert." In a statement, the FDA said that "limiting sun exposure, wearing protective clothing, and using sunscreens may reduce the risks of skin aging, skin cancer, and other harmful effects of the sun."

More than 1 million Americans will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer this year. Someone dies of it every hour.

Most skin cancers are basal cell or squamous cell types, which often appear as pale, wax-like, pearly nodules or red, scaly patches. The deadliest form, melanoma, often starts as a small mole-like growth that grows larger, has ragged or irregular edges, and has mixed shadings of brown or black. Melanoma cases are increasing by 3 percent a year.

Caught early, most skin cancer is curable. But melanoma spreads quickly, and even basal and squamous cell cancer can be dramatically disfiguring if the malignancies are allowed to grow large before removal. So doctors urge adults to check their skin monthly, and have a dermatologist check any suspicious spots promptly.

Experts recommend the following guidelines to prevent long-term sun damage:

  • Use sunscreen that has at least a sun protection factor, or SPF, of 15. The lotion should also protect against both types of ultraviolet rays, UVB and UVA. Not all sunscreens do. Reapply often, especially after swimming or sweating.
  • Avoid the sun, especially between 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., the hours when the sun's ultraviolet rays are strongest. Seek shade until after 4 p.m.
  • Seek shade whenever possible from trees or umbrellas, and limit exposure to reflective surfaces such as water. UV rays can be reflected off sand, water, snow, tile and buildings.
  • Wear protective, tightly woven clothing to shield against midday sun exposure.
  • Even with lotion on, limit exposure to the sun. Experts consider tanning to be a sign of skin damage.
  • When you are in the sun, wear a hat with a wide brim to protect the face, head, ears and neck from damage.
  • Wear sunglasses, because the sun also causes cataracts. Sunglasses should block 100 percent of UVA and UVB radiation.
  • Avoid tanning salons, since artificial UV radiation is just as bad for your skin as sunlight.
  • Review the daily UV index - a scale of 0 to 10+ - before going in the sun. The index is a forecast of what the intensity of the sun's UV rays will be around noon. The higher the number, the greater the risk of exposure to UV radiation.