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1-MINUTE CLINICALS: Be Cool in the Shade and Save Your Skin

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July 6, 2010 - Did you know that just a few serious sunburns can increase your risk of developing skin cancer? Or that unprotected skin can be damaged by the sun’s UV rays in as little as 15 minutes, yet it can take up to 12 hours for skin to show the full effect of sun exposure?

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States today. The two most common types of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas, are highly curable. However, melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous, especially among young people. Approximately 65 to 90 percent of melanomas are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light or sunlight.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 53,919 people in the United States were diagnosed with melanomas of the skin in 2006, the most recent year for which statistics are available. In that same year, 8,441 people in the United States died of melanomas of the skin.

Research has shown that most skin cancers are preventable if people are protected from UV light. Protection from sun exposure is important throughout the year and in all outdoor situations, not just during the summer or at the beach. Ultraviolet rays can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays also reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during daylight savings time (9 a.m. to 3 p.m. standard time) are the most hazardous for UV exposure in the continental United States. UV rays are more intense during the late spring and early summer in North America.

The CDC recommends easy options for sun protection, starting with the use of sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of 15 or higher, and both UVA and UVB protection, whenever the skin will be exposed to the sun. It is recommended that protective clothing be worn, including a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck and sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays as possible. The CDC also recommends that you seek shade, especially during midday hours, and apply and reapply a thick layer of sunscreen before venturing outdoors, even on slightly cloudy or cool days.

Sunscreen products work by absorbing, reflecting or scattering sunlight. They contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. All products do not have the same ingredients; so if your skin reacts badly to one product, try another one. Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. Since sunscreen wears off, it should be reapplied every two hours, after swimming and following activities that produce sweat. Note that sunscreens do have expiration dates. Their shelf life is usually three years or less, and may be shortened if the product has been exposed to high temperatures.

For more information about protecting yourself and your patients from skin cancer, visit the National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service at www.cdc.gov/ChooseYourCover.

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