Skin cancer more prevalent in Colorado high country, experts warn
October 22, 2018
Dr. Aaron Lloyd, a dermatologist at Colorado Mountain Medical in Avon, says residents and visitors to Colorado's high country can be fooled into thinking that because of the cooler weather at higher altitudes they don't have to worry as much about the harmful effects of the sun.
In fact, the exact opposite is true.
"I tell people that because of the high altitude we have a lot less atmosphere above us," Lloyd said. "The reduction in the atmosphere is significant, so you end up getting (ultra-violet) rays at higher altitudes like Vail that you don't even get in the vast majority of altitudes."
According to the nonprofit Skin Cancer Foundation, for every 1,000 feet above sea level, ultra-violet radiation exposure increases by up to 5 percent. That means that at an altitude of 9,000 to 10,000 feet, harmful UV radiation is up to 45 percent more intense than at sea level.
"Because of that — as well as the factor of how cool it is outside — it often fools people into thinking they don't need as much sun protection," Lloyd added. "But that's why it's doubly important to use sunscreen, UV-protective clothing and to seek shade."
Colorado's rarified air makes it an ideal place to recreate in Rocky Mountain splendor, but it also makes the state a prime place to contract skin cancer — the most common form of cancer in the United States, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. In Colorado, it's estimated there will be 1,640 new cases of melanoma — one of the most dangerous forms of the disease — in 2018.
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There are different types of skin cancer, with chronic sun exposure over a long period of time on exposed areas like forearms, the face and neck leading to the vast majority of squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma, according to Lloyd. Melanoma is more common on areas of the body more intermittently exposed to sun, such as the back, legs and stomach.
"The back is the number one area for melanoma, so we think there's more of a correlation with places that are often covered but you go on a float trip down the river or go to the beach for a week and you just get absolutely fried," Lloyd said. "That's the kind of sun exposure that's particularly dangerous and seems to lead to the more dangerous melanomas."
Everyone can benefit from having their skin checked periodically for irregularities, Lloyd said, although currently the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force that makes colonoscopy and mammography recommendations does not have a recommendation for skin cancer screenings.
Get checked if you have moles or blemishes that have changed shape or color and get at least one screening as you head into your 40 and 50s. Also get regular annual screenings if you're at moderate or high risk for skin cancer, Lloyd advises.
Walgreens has partnered with the Skin Cancer Foundation to support the Destination: Healthy Skin mobile education program focused on skin cancer prevention and early detection. A mobile lab is traveling around the country offering free full-body skin cancer screenings in private exam rooms by trained dermatologists.
Walgreens pharmacist Susan Barney recommends people apply sunscreen 30 minutes before heading out into the sun, reapply every two hours and don't even bother with SPF's (Sun Protection Factors) lower than 30.
"Not at this altitude. This altitude, it's a minimum of 30," said Barney, who works out of the Walgreens Highlands Ranch store near Denver.
MYTHS OF SKIN CANCER
Barney marvels at the amount of information now available to people on the dangers of sun exposure — information that's often ignored.
"When I was younger we used to put baby oil on our skin; we didn't know any better," Barney said. "But now there's so much technology and so much information that there's no reason to have as much skin cancer as we do."
Sasha Campbell, a Walgreens beauty consultant at the Highlands Ranch store, says there are several myths about skin cancer and numerous excuses for not using sunscreen.
"People think that skin cancer comes at a certain age," Campbell said. "They think it happens in their 50s. But honestly, it happens at any age — people in their 20s get skin cancer. It just depends how often you're in the sun."
Campbell also said people with darker skin tones often think they're immune from skin damage.
"There's a huge misconception with skin tone and sun care," Campbell said. "The most frequent excuse is, 'Oh, I don't get burnt so I don't have to wear sunscreen,' when in actuality, if you have a deeper skin tone, yes, it takes a little longer to burn but you still burn."
Then she says it's harder for people with deeper skin tones to detect skin damage.
"When you're sun-damaged, because you have deeper skin tones, it's harder for you to find those age spots or moles and you might not be able to recognize it right away till finally it's noticeable and it might be a little further along than if you had caught it right away," Campbell said, adding that early detection is key.
Campbell also said people with sensitive skin sometimes avoid sunscreen, as do women who think it messes with their makeup. She said Walgreens has products for both situations. For sensitive skin she recommends the Walgreens Baby SPF 50 lotions.
"This is great for people who have more sensitive skin, who use the excuse that they break out and they tend to use the baby one," Campbell said, adding there are also sunscreens that work great with makeup, such as the No7 Early Defense SPF 30 and the Neutrogena Clear Face, which is SPF 55.
"The great thing about those is they're more mattifying, especially the Neutrogena one," Campbell said. "And what mattifying means is a woman customer can apply makeup or any kind of cream along with that and still have their everyday look."
Finally, Campbell recommends the Walgreens Sport Continuous Spray sunscreens.
"It's convenient because it's a spray, so as you're doing activities like hiking and biking, it's quick to take out and spray," Campbell said.
But Barney, the pharmacist, doesn't recommend sprays in and around the face.
"I don't really recommend sprays for the face because you're going to inhale it," Barney said. "(The directions) say hold your breath, but it's really not recommended for the face. You should use a cream or lotion for the face and then use a spray for the body so you don't inhale it."
Barney also says people taking various medications that make their skin more sensitive, such as anti-aging creams, some forms of birth control, antibiotics or some anti-depressants, should consult their doctor or pharmacist about the right kinds of sunscreens to use.
Barney says that overall she prefers mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc and titanium to chemical-based sunscreens but adds that's really a matter of personal preference.
Go to Walgreens.com and search sun care or sunscreens to see all the products offered at the drug-store chain, which has a store locally on Sun Road in Avon. Call 970-949-8097.
Contact Dr. Aaron Lloyd, a dermatologist at Colorado Mountain Medical in Avon, by calling 970-926-6340.