Originally created 07/24/01

Age old question



Q: Who is at greatest risk for developing skin cancer?

A: Skin cancers are more common than any other, with more than 1 million new cases of diagnosed each year, according to the American Cancer Society.

It can occur at any age and can be deadly. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, individuals with fair skin, light hair, blue/green/gray eyes, a family history of skin cancer, long hours of sun exposure, a history of sunburns, certain types or a large number of moles, and people with freckles are at greater risk for developing skin cancer.

The American Academy of Dermatology warns avid sunbathers that they're damaging their skin by soaking up the sun's rays. When the skin tans, it is actually trying to defend itself from the sun's damaging UVB and UVA rays. Rays of sunlight can damage skin cells immediately. The body reacts by producing extra melanin under the skin's top layer. Melanin is the pigment that gives skin the characteristic brown or red tint after a full day or even a few minutes of sunbathing. Even on hazy or overcast days, the sun can damage skin if it's not protected. Remember to stay out of the sun, if possible, between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. During this time the sun's rays are the strongest. If you must go outside, remember to wear protective clothing, including a hat and sunglasses. One of the most important defenses against sunburn and skin cancer is the regular use of a sunscreen with an SPF (sunscreen protection factor) of 15 or higher. This number tells you how long you can remain in the sun without burning.

Apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before you go outside to allow time for your skin to fully absorb it. If you plan to swim or if it is particularly humid, plan to reapply sunscreen every hour to hour and a half. Even waterproof sunscreens should be reapplied after a dip in the pool or lake.

Tanning and burning can result in wrinkles, sunspots, skin cancer and cataracts down the road. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends that everyone conduct monthly skin exams to check for skin cancer in its early stages. Any changes in moles or freckles, any new spots that are asymmetrical, that are more than one color, that are the size of a pencil eraser or larger, or that have uneven borders should be taken up with a doctor.

Start your skin exam at the top of your head and work your way down to the bottoms of your feet. If you notice anything abnormal, contact your physician immediately for further examination.

If you do get sunburned, forget those old wives tales about applying butter to your skin. Instead, flush the skin with cool water and apply an aloe vera solution if you like. Don't apply ice directly to the skin as it can cause further complications.

If you must be tan this summer, try one of the self-tanning products on the market. These will provide the golden-brown body you've been dreaming of without the damaging side effects.

If you have a question or would like additional information, please write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, GA 30909.