Staying Cancer-Free With Sunscreen

The days are long, the pools and lakes and beaches beckon … it’s past time to think about shielding our bodies from UV damage. Heed these skin protection tips now, or be prepared to pay the painful price later.

In A Perfet World, Suncreen Would Be The Next Hand Sanitizer – and skin cancer would be far less of a problem.

Grocery stores would mount handy SPF-30 wipe dispensers at exits so patrons could cover up for the parking lot walk. Everyone would stash sunscreen in their car’s console for slathering arms and hands before a drive. Restaurants’ outdoor patios would nestle packets of sunblock towelettes among the sugar and Splenda.

As a board-certified dermatologist, Dr. Tiffany Brazeal would love that. She regularly instructs her patients on sun-savvy ways to protect themselves from ultraviolet rays (UVA and UVB), the leading cause of skin cancers. She practices her preaching, too. When going jogging from her Edmond home, a hefty pump bottle of SPF-30 sunscreen and her hat are positioned at the exit door. She slathers some on and she’s off.

“It’s just convenient,” she said. “If it’s convenient, people tend to do it more, including myself.”

Working from the Saints Dermatology Center of Excellence in north OKC, Brazeal diagnoses and treats the most common of all cancers: squamous cell, basal cell and melanoma skin cancers. Oklahoma ranks 38th among the states for incidences of melanoma – the most serious and deadly skin cancer – but 21st for deaths from the disease, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control.

To protect yourself from skin-damaging UV exposure that accumulates over a lifetime, it’s best to never sunburn, stay in shade, particularly from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and wear wide-brimmed hats and wraparound sunglasses that block UV radiation. You should also use a broad-spectrum sunscreen blocking UVA and UVB. SPF-30 is good, but you can go higher, Brazeal says. 

Tanning beds have contributed to a higher incidence of skin cancer at a younger age. Brazeal has treated teenagers and adults in their 20s who use the UV-generating lights. She tells them that self-tanning lotions and sprays are far safer alternatives. She also tries to appeal to their reason for tanning in the first place – vanity.

“That’s how I can relate to younger kids. If I sit there and say, ‘Don’t tan because you’re going to get skin cancer’ – right over their heads. If I say, ‘Don’t tan because you’re going to get wrinkles and liver spots,’ they’re like, ‘Oh, OK, I won’t, or maybe I’ll consider it.’”

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Under the Oklahoma Sun

If it’s summer in Oklahoma, most of us will relish our glorious outdoor time by the poolside every day, weekend after weekend at the lake or, for the most sun-shy, at least one grudging appearance at the family reunion. Even if it’s 108 degrees, that’s nothing a dump truck of bagged ice sliding into your pool can’t solve. We asked Dr. Brazeal for advice on typical Oklahoma scenarios in the sun.

Kids at Camp Whole-Lotta-Uvee. Sunburns may have been a rite of passage in your childhood, but don’t dare think of it as a “life-is-a-circle” repeat of what quaintly happens to us all. Sunburns are fire-red warnings of a huge overdose of skin-damaging UV. This harmful exposure accumulates over a lifetime to up your chances of skin cancer, age spots and wrinkles. Dr. Brazeal’s remedies: Soak in cool water. Employ over-the-counter hydrocortisone and anti-inflammatory ibuprofen. Aquaphor or Vaseline cool skin, but aloe vera can cause rashes in some.

The “base tan.” Are you thinking of a protective base tan before your Key West vacation? Or are you thinking of a quick wrinkle-inducing UV bath so you can go without sunscreen (perhaps the better to impress a flirtation in a more UV-intense latitude?) Either way, it’s not worth it. Dr. Brazeal says studies show that a “base tan” might give you protection of SPF 4 or less. “That may equate to just a few more minutes in the sun, when really it’s not worth the damage you’ve done to your skin to get that base tan.”

The farmer tan. An Oklahoma classic. Red neck (purely in the medical sense here), burned ears, a V-neck chest tattoo gloriously haloed by pasty white skin. Don’t forget those brown arms with a bonus: a skin-only white T-shirt when it’s getting hot in here! Dr. Brazeal says men are more likely to skip sun protection, but cumulative effects matter. Skin cancers on those “farmer” spots are far more likely. If you don’t like “oily” lotions, try sprays and dry-feel products. For men especially, remember your forehead and/or hair-challenged scalp areas.

Athletes’ heat. Whether it’s golfing, tennis, dirt biking or brisk walking, sunscreen is as important as your putter, racket and other sports equipment. Cover any exposed skin. With sportswear, tight-weave clothing blocks more UV rays. If you can see through a shirt held up to light, UV exploits those gaps. Check out sports stores for clothing specifically designed for UV protection.

Blanket sun advice. Apply sunscreen before you leave the house. Reapply often. After that, reapply. Then repeat. It’s one of the most commonly forgotten protections. Do it as a no-brainer, or read the label for how often it should be done. Another recurring mystery question is how much to apply. Some advise a dose the size of your palm. What the heck does that mean? Dr. Brazeal recommends imagining your palm with a golf ball of sunscreen in it for typical body coverage. Or go for a spray, but shoot for even skin coverage with either.