The Sun’s No Fun

For skin protection, aim to have it made in the shade
The Sun's No Fun
Illustration by Joseph Daniel Fiedler

This summer, think Katherine Heigl, Nicole Kidman, and Cate Blanchett before baking in the sun. These peaches-and cream leading ladies know a thing or two when it comes to protecting skin and shunning the sun, which makes them role models in a non-Hollywood sense.

According to the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, cancer of the skin is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Melanoma — the most deadly skin cancer— accounts for about 4 percent of all cases, but 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths.

Given those statistics, the latest beauty trend is also a health benefit. Consider the red-carpet scene at the 2008 Oscars where radiant ivory skin rivaled the diamonds and gowns. Renée Zellweger, Anne Hathaway, and other lovelies have adopted a look once considered a sign of royalty and wealth. Among Caucasians, suntanned complexions once identified people as poor manual laborers, says Dru Szczerba, director of cancer prevention at the American Cancer Society.

Paleness as a status symbol reverses the tan-envy of a few years ago, when a sun-kissed face indicated wealthy jet-setters who were able to travel to beach resorts. Emulating that look, people began worshipping the sun, which is one of the reasons that melanoma cancer is now on the rise. “Cancer is the disease of the aging,” Szczerba says. When tanning was acceptable, “we used baby oil,” which offered zero protection.

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), the number of new cases of melanoma per 100,000 people each year has more than doubled since 1973. Research done by the Colette Coyne Melanoma Awareness Campaign shows that malignant melanoma is increasing faster than any other cancer and that one person dies from the disease every hour.

African-Americans and other ethnicities with darker skin tones are not immune from the dangers. The ACS reports that even though melanoma is diagnosed far more in whites, a study by the Journal of Surgical Oncology shows it is deadlier when African-Americans develop the disease.

African-Americans have a 45-percent survival rate at five years, compared to 69 percent in whites.

Today, a tan no longer symbolizes wealth; it signals skin damage. A burn is “your body saying ‘alert, alert; you’re damaging your skin,’ ” Szczerba says. A lot of the damage comes from our youth. “You can’t go back,” she says, but it’s important to step up and take the proper precautions now.

Sunscreen is just one factor in protection, however, says Dr. Henry Lim, chairman of dermatology at Henry Ford Hospital. People must seek shade, wear sunglasses, and wear protective clothing, he says. It’s also important to wear an SPF lip balm if you’re going to be exposed to the sun for an extended period — for example, golfing or spending a day at the beach. “As time goes on, there is sun damage to the lips,” he says.

On a daily basis, Lim suggests wearing at least an 15 SPF and anywhere from 30 to 70 SPF during constant sun exposure. “The higher the [number], the more protective,” he says.

When selecting the most advantageous sunscreen, Lim recommends one with “broad spectrum” indicated on the bottle because “it covers both ultra-violet B and A rays.”

Even with a proper SPF, Lim cautions, “You don’t use sunscreen so you can stay out in the sun longer … you use sunscreen so you can protect your skin from the side effects of the sun while you’re outside. It doesn’t mean it should extend your exposure time.”

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