Guest Blogger: Carolyn
When I was nine years old, my best friend became my mortal enemy.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, I would wait impatiently through the dark, cold winter for that glorious moment when spring would arrive and the warm, brilliant sun would break through the clouds. I loved nothing more than a hot, sunny day spent swimming in my best friend’s pool. A popsicle mid-swim, just as the sun hit its peak in the sky, would make the day perfect. Until my dad was diagnosed with malignant melanoma – aka skin cancer. Over the next eight months we watched my dad endure extensive skin grafts, multiple overnight hospital stays and tumors across the surface of most of his skin, until skin cancer finally took his life.
Wait, what? You can die from skin cancer? Yes, in fact one person dies of melanoma every 54 minutes, and the number of people who develop skin cancer is on the rise. Each year there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostrate, lung and colon.
If that isn’t enough to make you take skin cancer seriously, maybe this statistic will: one in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime.
From my dad’s death onward, we became a family that was hyper-vigilant about sun exposure. About 90% of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 86% of melanoma skin cancers are associated with exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Our approach went beyond the standard “Slip, Slap, Slop” — slip on a shirt, slap on a hat, slop on sunscreen. We took extreme measures such as avoiding the outdoors between the hours of 12pm and 2pm when the sun is at its strongest, applying sunscreen almost constantly and even buying window shades for the passenger windows in our car (I’m not even sure this is legal). I learned quickly to hate and fear the sunshine that I once loved.
As I grew older, the struggle against the sun became even more difficult. I was born with very pale, Irish skin that most would call “pasty” at best. At worst, I was called ghostly, sickly, deathly and told by both peers and adults that I desperately needed to get a tan.
My teenage years were miserable, spent hiding my otherwise attractive body under large baggy jeans and flannel shirts. Thankfully that was during the height of the grunge trend, which I used as an excuse for dressing this way. But truthfully, I would have preferred to be wearing the cute short-shorts and tank tops worn by other girls my age. For them, dressing like this was a fashion choice. For me, it was Russian roulette. I risked exposing my fair, delicate skin to lethal UV rays and risked exposing my ego to jeers and taunts about my skin tone.
Fortunately, over time the public has become more aware of the dangers of skin cancer and has put a higher priority on sun protection. As an adult, I’ve become better educated as to what I can do to prevent skin cancer, while still having the confidence to spend time outdoors and show a little skin without worring excessively about the risks. Here are my top five tips on how to keep your skin safe and your summer sunny:
- Invest in a top-notch dermatologist
Skin care is not the area where I try to cut costs. This is not only because I worry I’ll have the same fate as my dad, but also because I want to keep my skin looking young and healthy.
If you invest in luxury cremes and serums to prevent wrinkles, you should be investing in a great dermatologist as well. Top dermatologists have a dermascope, which is a tool that magnifies your moles and projects them onto a screen so your they can be viewed in more detail. It also takes pictures of your moles so that your dermatologist can track their changes over time, as many moles that look innocent today can turn cancerous in the future. Look for a dermatologist that has a dermascope and requires you schedule annual skin cancer screenings.
If you want to take skin cancer screening a step further, medical device company 3Gen has developed the Dermlite HUD, a home-use dermascope that attaches to your smartphone and comes with an app that allows you to photograph your moles and send the image directly to your dermatologist for monitoring.
The Dermalite HUD costs as little as $79 and can be a worthwhile investment if your risk of getting skin cancer is high.
2. Bring an extra layer
Clothing is our first and most reliable defense against UV rays. It protects us by absorbing or blocking much of the sun’s radiation.
When going out, I always bring a light cardigan or jacket to drape over my shoulders or across my legs, just in case I find myself in the sun. This can happen when you least expect it – the hostess seats you at a café table that doesn’t seem to catch any shade, the sun shifts and now you’re on the sunny side of the car, what seemed to be a decidedly cloudy day is suddenly sunny and blue – so having an extra cardigan or jacket to protect your skin comes in handy.
3.Wear a hat
Skin cancer tends to develop on the scalp where it’s easily hidden by hair. Malignant moles on the scalp can go undetected for a very long time since this is a difficult area of the body to monitor.
If your first malignant mole appeared on your scalp, often the cancer spreads to other, more exposed, areas of the body before it’s detected (as was the case with my dad). When spending time outdoors, your best bet is to accessorize with a cute hat. A trendy fedora, stylish floppy straw hat or even a casual baseball cap will do the trick!
4.Use an SPF 30 sunscreen from head to toe, every day
Although keeping skin covered is the best protection from the sun, this isn’t always possible. Particularly when it comes to your face, neck and décolleté.
I use an SPF 30 sunscreen daily to keep these areas protected. I also use it on my arms, especially on my left arm which tends to get the most sun while I’m driving. If you’re wearing your hair up in a ponytail or messy bun, don’t forget to apply sunscreen to the back of your neck. An SPF 30 product blocks 97% of UVD rays but beyond SPF 30 the percentage of UVB rays blocked doesn’t increase by much significance, so no need to throw down extra cash on a sunscreen boasting SPFs higher than 30. Some users may want to opt for SPF 45 which can block up to 98% of UVB rays, but beyond that it just gets silly.
Your standard SPF 30 sunscreen is providing ample protection, and no sunscreen offers 100% protection. Besides protecting your skin from cancer, using sunscreen has significant anti-aging benefits as well. People who use sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher daily show 24 percent less skin aging than those who do not use sunscreen daily.
I use Eucerin Daily Protection SPF 30 Face Lotion as my daily moisturizer – it’s one of the few daily moisturizers that offers SPF 30 protection as most only offer SPF 15.
5.Stay tan with a spray tan
More people develop skin cancer because of tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking. Interestingly, individuals who have used tanning beds 10 or more times in their lives have a 34% increased risk of developing melanoma compared to those who have never used tanning beds, and people who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk of melanoma by 75%. So don’t buy into the myth that tanning beds are safer than the beach. Over time, I developed a sense of confidence in my porcelain pale skin.
However, there are occasions where style trumps confidence for me and I prefer my skin to have a little more color. So recently I ventured into the world of spray tanning. I’d avoided it for years after having a bad run-in with self-tanning crème in the 7th grade and a negative experience in a spray tan booth about ten years ago (both times the product didn’t blend well, causing me to look like a gold and white leopard). Since then, spray tanning has come a long way. Spray tans no longer mean looking like a Cheeto or smelling awful afterwards.
About a year ago I gave it another try, this time opting for a professionally applied airbrush tan. The application was flawless and once the color settled, I looked like a beautiful bronze goddess.
What number SPF do you use? Do you have any special tricks to keep you safe in the sunshine? Be smart about fun in the sun and enjoy summer to the fullest.
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