Why you shouldn’t worship the sun
Doctors warn of dangerous ultraviolet rays, especially in Colorado where high elevations provide less protection from the earth’s atmosphere
Written By Lauren Glendenning
Brought to you by Kaiser Permanente
Physicians are serious about sun protection, especially in a state that sees so many sunny, blue-sky days.
With the lowest elevation in Colorado at roughly 3,300 feet above sea level, and the highest peak standing at 14,440 feet, Colorado residents and visitors are exposed to more harmful ultraviolet (UV) light here because there is less of the earth’s atmosphere blocking the sun’s rays.
Sun exposure is dangerous anywhere in the world, but the consequences are heightened at altitude.
“Long-term sun damage increases the risk of skin cancers and also causes wrinkling and aging of the skin,” said Dr. Jeannine Benson, Internal Medicine Physician and Primary Care Chief at Kaiser Permanente’s Edwards Medical Office.
The dangers of UV radiation
The most common types of skin cancers are squamous cell cancer, basal cell cancer and melanoma, she said.
“There is no guarantee, but ways to try to prevent these skin cancers are by taking effective measures to protect the skin from sun damage, having regular skin screenings and talking with your physician about possible genetic risks for certain skin cancers,” she said. “Self exams are very important, as well — watch for the ABDCEs.”
Benson is referring to melanoma, where asymmetry, border, color, diameter and evolution are things to watch out for when doing a self-exam.
Benign moles, for example, are typically symmetrical, have smooth borders, are all one color, are smaller in diameter and look the same over time, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Malignant moles might have one half that doesn’t match the other, an irregular border, non-uniform color, a diameter greater than 6 millimeters and changes in size, shape or color, Benson said.
Skin cancers are disproportionately concentrated on the head compared with other parts of the body, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Faces, especially noses, and the ears are particularly at risk. And while hats and umbrellas don’t offer the same level of protection that sunscreen does, these methods do help in minimizing direct exposure to the sun.
Protect your skin
A recent article published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology studied 81 people at a beach in Texas for 3 1/2 hours. One group applied SPF 100 and the other group sat under an umbrella, after which 78 percent of the umbrella group had a sunburn and 25 percent of the sunscreen group had a sunburn.
Benson recommends applying sunscreen 15 to 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow for the protective layer to form on the skin. She said it’s also important to reapply sunscreen at least every two hours, and after every time someone goes into the water.
“It’s also important to remember that sun burns can still happen when it is cloudy out, so don’t forget the sunscreen,” she said.
Anyone needing vitamin D shouldn’t seek it from sun exposure, either. It’s best obtained through diet or supplements, which Benson said patients should discuss with their primary care physician.
As for tanning beds,, a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that more than 35 percent of American adults and 55 percent of American college students reported having ever used a tanning bed, with 13 percent of adults and 43 percent of college students admitting to having used one in the past year.
The study concluded that tanning beds contribute to more than 400,000 cases of skin cancer each year, comparatively noting that smoking contributes to about 200,000 cases of lung cancer annually.
Benson’s advice on tanning beds is simple: never use them.