The skin’s a really complex structure,” says Dr. Stephen H. Mason of the Dermatology Clinic of Arkansas in Hot Springs.
The largest organ of the body, skin protects us from germs and injury; it controls our body temperature; it helps us make vitamin D; and it helps keeps us “watertight,” regulating how much fluid we lose or take in.
The skin’s biggest enemy is ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun. “There’s been no safe level of UV that’s been determined,” says Mason. “Even after a few minutes in the sun, the skin starts having damage from the ultraviolet radiation.”
This damage can lead to premature aging and to cancers that can be disfiguring or deadly if left untreated. According to the American Cancer Society, skin cancer will affect about 3.3 million people in the U.S. this year —and about 76,000 of those cases will be the deadliest cancer, melanoma.
UV exposure makes wrinkles “come faster, and worse, because the sun’s damaging the cells that make [your skin]elastic,” says Mason. “And it’s damaging the blood vessels, so that’s why you’re getting bruises. It’s damaging the pigment cells, so that’s why you’re getting brown and white spots.”
Cosmetic solutions to help reduce the look of sun-induced aging range from over-the-counter skin care to prescription products to lasers. But it’s better to stop the damage in the first place, says Mason. “And hand-in-hand with anything you do is constant sunscreen use afterwards. Your No. 1 beauty product is sunscreen.”
Preventing the damage
Mason recommends a broad spectrum sunscreen that is 30 SPF or greater, applied regularly and frequently. “We recommend an ounce — a shot-glass full,” says Mason. “And then you reapply after two hours, or after you come out of the water” or sweat heavily.
The Environmental Protection Agency seconds this, estimating that “A small tube of sunscreen might only be enough for one person during a day at the beach.” They also remind people to check the expiration date on the sunscreen, which can lose its effectiveness.
For the chemically sensitive, Mason recommends sunscreens based on titanium or zinc, which are natural barriers. “They basically reflect the sun off,” he says. “There’s no chemical reaction.” Direct protection like clothing, hats and shade can also provide crucial coverage.
Slowing the damage
If you do end up sunburned, act quickly. “The direct damage from the UV is done,” says Mason. “But it continues on for hours after you’re out of the sun, so you want to do something to take down the inflammation.”
He recommends acetaminophen, aspirin or ibuprofen, along with cool water baths or compresses. Leave off the topical numbing medicines, though.
“In severe cases, the patient should probably see their physician in case they need to be treated with steroids,” Mason says. Anyone who is dehydrated, running a fever over 101 degrees or has sunburns over more than 15 percent of the body should seek medical attention.
Time for a specialist
“People who have spent a lot of time either working in the sun for their job, or playing in the sun for their hobbies, or who have a family history of melanoma or skin cancers, should have a baseline visit” (with a dermatologist), says Mason.
Any of these potential signs and symptoms of skin cancer indicate the need for a “skin check” with a primary care physician:
- Skin changes, especially in the size or color of a mole, growth, or spot, or a new growth.
- Scaliness, roughness, oozing, bleeding or a change in the way an area of skin looks.
- A sore that doesn’t heal.
- Pigment (dark coloring) that spreads past the edge of a mark.
- Changes in sensation, like pain or itchiness.
“Early detection is very important,” Mason continues, advocating for a doctor’s visit for the indicators above. “If it’s nothing, then you’re reassured. And if something does have to be done, it’s so much easier if it’s smaller.”
Working and recreating outdoors is a way of life for many Arkansans, Mason acknowledges, but he believes that with the proper precautions we can safely enjoy The Natural State without increasing our risk of skin damage.
“I don’t want people to live indoors or in caves,” he says with a laugh. “I want them to go out and enjoy themselves, and to enjoy their outdoor activities — but be smart about it. I want to remind people to really take care of their skin.”
For more information about sun safety and other skin-related issues, Dr. Mason recommends the American Academy of Dermatology’s website at www.aad.org.
A.D Lively is a Little Rock-based writer specializing in health and wellness.