When Julie Tilly was young, spending hours in the sun to enhance her natural skin tone was just part of a leisurely summer day. "I thought I looked healthier with a tan," Tilly said.
Now 65 and fighting deep wrinkles, liver spots and an early case of skin cancer from a discoloration on her lower cheek, Tilly is first to admit she is much more vigilant with applying sunscreen and protecting herself from the sun's harsh rays.
Sun damage is a very real threat that can lead to various conditions, from premature aging of the skin to untreatable advanced melanoma, the most common form of cancer in the United States. And since harmful sun exposure isn't just a threat during the summer, understanding how to protect your skin is vital to remaining healthy.
According to the Food and Drug Administration, studies show that exposure to the sun can cause skin cancer; eye problems; weakened immune systems; and dry, wrinkled, leathery skin. The damage is caused by ultraviolet radiation.
There are two kinds of UV rays, said Dr. David Dorton, a board certified dermatologist at Bay Dermatology and Cosmetic Surgery. UVB rays are those found in natural sun exposure, which leads to sunburn. UVA rays are caused by sun lamps and tanning beds.
Both can lead to melanoma, which if caught early is treatable. But left untreated, melanoma can be fatal, he said.
Limiting sun exposure and choosing healthy protection, like effective sunscreens or blockers, are the best defenses against potential skin cancers and other skin damage caused by the sun.
It is recommended that children under 6 months of age never be exposed to direct sunlight. All others should limit their sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
If you must go out during that time, using an effective sunscreen or sun blocker is vital.
"There are some changes coming down the pipeline as far as labeling on sunscreens go," explained Dorton. "The sunscreens are now going to be labeled 'broad spectrum,' which means they will now block both UVA light and UVB light."
Prior to the changes, most SPF labels only indicated UVB light protection. UVA can also cause sunburn but goes deeper into the skin and attributes to wrinkles, premature aging and skin cancers.
The labeling will now assure the consumer that they are receiving protection from both.
Dorton went on to explain that sunscreens and sun blockers are different and consumers should know be aware of what they are getting.
"Sunscreens can either have chemicals in them which allow absorption or they can have minerals that actually block the rays."
Sunscreens and blockers can no longer say they are waterproof, just water resistant, and must include a time when they should be reapplied.
"A lot of people had a false sense of security with the old labels," Dorton said. "They thought if they put it on in the morning they could stay out in the sun all day."
It is also important to understand exactly what an SPF number means. For instance, if a sunscreen or blocker has an SPF 15, users can stay out in the sun 15 times longer than if they didn't use any protection.
The following are tips for applying sunscreen:
Apply the recommended amounts to exposed skin, especially the lips, nose, ears, neck, hands and feet.
Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going out in the sun.
Wear a hat.
Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.
Apply sunscreen to children every time they go out.
"More people have skin cancer than any other," Dorton said, which is why it is important to know how to protect yourself.
But sunscreens and blockers are only part of the solution. Wearing protective clothing can also help prevent sun exposure.
It is important to also protect the eyes against the sun's rays. The following are good guidelines for choosing the right eyewear for sunlight protection;
Look for labels that specifically offer 99 to 100 percent UV protection.
Eyewear should be labeled "sunglasses."
More expensive sunglasses do not ensure better UV protection.
Those who wear contacts with UV protection should wear sunglasses.
Wrap-around sunglasses offer the best protection.
Children should wear real sunglasses that indicate the UV protection level.
"You can really protect your skin with sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats, glasses, and protective clothing," Dorton said.
One negative to all the skin protecting, however, is the lowered amounts of vitamin D, about 80 to 90 percent of which is derived from sun exposure.
It is possible to get enough vitamin D while also being careful about sun exposure. Dorton suggested going out about two or three times a week for about 25 percent of the time it would take for you to burn.
"That should give you enough," he said. Testing for vitamin D levels should also be done, and those who show low amounts can supplement with an over-the-counter vitamin.
The only way to avoid damage is to be vigilant about sun protection and to be aware of changes in your skin that might indicate damage or the early signs of skin cancer.
"It is important to check your skin regularly," added Dolton, especially the size, shape, color and texture of birthmarks, moles and freckles.
Dolton referred to the "ABCDE rule" of skin cancer detection:
Asymmetry; normal moles or freckles are completely symmetrical. If you draw a line through a normal spot, there would be two symmetrical halves. In the case of skin cancer, the two halves won't look the same.
Border; a mole or spot with blurry and/or jagged edges.
Color; a mole with more than one hue is suspicious and should be evaluated by a doctor.
Diameter; spots should not be larger than a pencil eraser (about ¼ in. or 66mm).
Elevation; a mole that is raised above the surface or the surface is uneven.
Regular baseline skin exams are important because melanoma is curable if caught early.
Bay Dermatology, located at 1130 Commercial Way in Spring Hill, specializes in diseases of the skin, skin cancer, psoriasis therapy and ultraviolet light therapy, as well as a variety of cosmetic procedures. They can be reached at (352) 688-5544. Or visit www.baydermatology.com.
Hernando Today correspondent Kim Dame can be reached at email@example.com