Spring Break is just around the corner – sunshine, here we come! Just know that the incidence of melanoma, which has nearly doubled in the last decade, is increasing at a rate faster than any other cancer. While most people take several measures to decrease the chance of getting skin cancer, some of these measures are ineffective. The following are common misconceptions of how to "prep" your skin for Spring Break.
A base tan will prevent me from getting sunburned. There is no such thing as a "healthy tan." Tanning is a response to skin injury by UV rays, meaning that any bit of tanning is a sign that your skin has been damaged. Steer clear of tanning beds. Although tanning beds emit primarily UVA rays, overexposure can cause sunburn, and their use enhances skin aging and the risk for skin cancer.
I've been indoors since the holiday break, so being under the sun for 5 days won't kill me. Actually, it might. The number of sunburns you get is directly related to melanoma risk. One study found that a person with a history of three or more blistering sunburns is 2.5 to 6.3 times more likely to get melanoma. For this reason, people who experience intense, intermittent sun exposure are more prone to developing this deadly type of skin cancer.
I spend a lot of time outdoors, so spending a few days at the beach won't make a difference. Wrong. While sunburns increase your risk of getting melanoma, lifetime cumulative sun exposure directly correlates with your chances of getting nonmelanoma skin cancer, namely basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.
I'm young, so I don't have to worry about cancer because it affects older people. The sun causes at least 90 percent of all skin cancers. Although many develop skin cancers later in life, most people receive 50 to 80 percent of their cumulative lifetime sun exposure before age 18. Start protecting yourself now; your skin will thank you later.
I've heard tanning lotions are safe, so I'll just slather that on to protect my skin while I'm at the beach. While it's true that self-tanning lotions are skin dyes that are safe to use, skin-coloring agents do not protect the skin from UV ray injury. Therefore, you should apply sunblock even if you're using self-tanning products.
I don't like the feel of sunblock; I'll be fine if I just stay in the shade. UV rays are reflected off sand, concrete and snow, and these elements add to the total UV ray exposure. So sitting in the shade won't fully protect you, and you could still get sunburned. If you really can't stand the way sunblock feels, know that clothing is truly the best protection. Cover the skin with clothing first, and apply sunscreen to unprotected skin.
It's cloudy—I don't need to apply sunblock. Although UV rays are less intense on overcast days, they're still present. Since sun damage is cumulative, each dose of UV rays adds up and will gradually cause permanent skin damage.
Do your skin a favor by keeping these misconceptions in mind during Spring Break. If you end up getting sunburned, take ibuprofen or aspirin to help reduce inflammation and control pain, cover the burn with a cool, wet compress for 20 minutes four or five times a day, and drink a lot of fluids. Stay away from butter or heavy ointments, since they can cause skin irritation, and stay completely out of the sun for at least 1 week, since sun-damaged skin is more susceptible to subsequent burns. (Do NOT take aspirin if you are 18 years or younger without first consulting a doctor.)
Here are some other tips to prevent a sunburn on Spring Break:
- Try your best to avoid sun exposure from 10 AM to 2 PM (11 AM to 3 PM daylight savings time), when UVB rays are most intense. Plan outdoor activities for the early morning or late afternoon.
- Keep your location in mind. If you're vacationing somewhere with a high altitude, there is less atmosphere to absorb UV rays, increasing the risk of sunburn. Additionally, UV rays are stronger near the equator, where the sun's rays strike the earth most directly.
- Some medications (sulfonamides, tetracyclines, and birth control pills as well as over-the-counter products) and cosmetic ingredients (lime oil) can be photosensitizing, meaning they heighten the skin’s sensitivity to sunlight. Be sure to check them out before using them while on vacation.
1- Fitzpatrick, James E., and Joseph G. Morelli. Dermatology Secrets in Color. Philadelphia: Mosby Elsevier, 2007. Print.
2- Skin Cancer Statistics 2005. National Cancer Institute. http://www.cancer.gov.