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Summer is the time to be outdoors. The weather is fair, the breeze is cool and the sun is bright. Whether lounging at the beach, hiking in the mountains or gardening in the backyard, many love basking in the summer sun. Yet being out under the sun’s bright rays may be just as harmful as it is enjoyable.

On July 29th, 2014, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services released the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer. In it the Surgeon General warns against commonly believed misconceptions about the rise in skin cancer, what causes it, and how preventable this cancer can be.

There are some who feel they are at a “low risk” for skin cancer, including many seniors. According to NIHSeniorHealth.gov, skin cancer “occurs in more than a million people each year, including many older people.” Everyone, no matter your age, gender or nationality, is susceptible to damaging UV rays and skin cancer.

Tanning

One of the most common misconceptions about skin health is the cosmetic tan. A cosmetic tan is obtained through “sunbathing” or from on of the many indoor tanning salons. These companies are focused on providing a year-round “luxurious tan.”

Many indoor tanning salons prefer to focus on the benefits that come from tanning. They propose that having a tan is not only important to your health but that it can improve your mental stamina. Yet the Surgeon General warns, “Although sun exposure can have positive effects on mood and stimulates production of vitamin D, exposure to UV radiation also damages DNA and cell functions, and that damage can lead to cancer.”

Howard K. Koh, M.D. the Assistant Secretary for Health of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services stated, “A ‘base’ tan is not a ‘safe’ tan. Tanned skin is damaged skin.” According to the Surgeon General the popular “tan” is nothing more than a sign that you have purposely damaged your skin and increased your risk for skin cancer.

The Surgeon General goes on to totally condemn the use of indoor tanning beds. Tanning beds and other indoor tanning devices expose the body to harsh Ultra Violet Rays. He stated, “The World Health Organization (WHO) classified indoor tanning devices as Class I human carcinogens on the basis of strong evidence linking indoor tanning to increased risk of skin cancer.” While avoiding the sun can be difficult the surgeon general states that, “UV exposure from indoor tanning is completely avoidable.”

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Skin Cancer: Types and Facts

There are three different types of skin cancer, as outlined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services:

Basal Cell Carcinomas- “BCCs tend to occur on skin that is chronically exposed to the sun, such as the face, head, and neck, but they also frequently occur on the trunk of the body. Because it frequently occurs on the face and head, BCC and its treatment can result in noticeable disfigurement. “

Squamous Cell Carcinomas-“Similar to BCCs, SCCs usually occur in prominent, sun-exposed areas, like the face, head, and neck. SCCs often arise from scaly patches that occur on sun-exposed areas.”

Melanomas- “These cancers can arise in the skin (cutaneous melanoma) and less frequently in the eye (ocular melanoma) or mucous membranes. Melanoma can… occur in any location on the body… usually found on the head, neck, face, palms of the hands, soles of the feet, and under nails.

Nearly five million people are treated for skin cancer every year in the U.S., and it causes about 9,000 deaths per year. The Surgeon General warns that these numbers are continuing to rise. According to Today.com, diagnosis of melanoma has risen 200% over the past couple of decades.

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Surgeon General’s Skin Cancer Guidelines

The best part about skin cancer is that, in most cases, it is totally preventable. There are five simple steps that seniors and individuals of all ages can take to protect themselves from overexposure to the sun.

  • Wear tightly-woven protective clothing that adequately covers the arms, torso and legs. 
    By covering our skin with protective clothing, we can reduce over exposure to the sun.  Wearing a lot of clothing in the summer months is not always ideal. But by simply putting a shirt on when you leave the water or wearing a hat as you go for a walk you can greatly reduce your risk of UV exposure.
  • Wear a hat that provides adequate shade to the whole of the head.
    Hats are a great way to protect our scalp, ears, face and neck from unwanted exposure. Hats with wide brims are preferable.
  • Seek shade whenever possible.
    Lounging in the sun for extended periods of time greatly increases your chance of sunburn and skin cancer. Sitting in the shade is a refreshing outdoor experience and much safer for your skin.
  • Avoid outdoor activities during periods of peak sunlight (such as midday).
    The sun’s UV rays are the strongest and harshest around midday. Enjoy indoor activities during the hot part of the day, and plan your outdoor activities for the morning or early evening—it’s usually cooler then, too!
  • Use sunscreen.
    Wear sunscreen that has an SPF rating of 15 or higher and protects from both UVA and UVB rays.  When applying sunscreen use a “shot glass” worth and reapply every two hours. Be aware that there is no such thing as “waterproof” sunscreen, only “water resistant” sunscreen which helps when swimming but should be reapplied upon leaving the water.
So as you go out into the summer sun this year, have fun! But it’s also important to protect yourself from harmful UV rays. “More than one-third of Americans report being sunburned in the past year.” The Surgeon General Reported. “We must act with urgency to stop the ever-increasing incidence of skin cancers in the United States… We need to work together to address skin cancer as a public health problem. We know that comprehensive, communitywide efforts to prevent skin cancer can work, with adequate support and a unified approach.” So let’s get educated and unified on how we can protect ourselves and help others learn how to reduce their risk for skin cancer.