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How to Protect Your Largest Organ

Posted 6/8/2016 by UHBlog

How you treat your skin now can help to ensure fun summers for years to come. Ask us.

How to Protect Your Largest Organ (skin protection)

After being cooped up inside all winter, chances are you’re anxious to get outside under the sun and blue skies. But that may not always be good news for your skin, says dermatologist Kevin Cooper, MD.

According to Dr. Cooper, skin damage from the sun is generally caused by two categories of ultraviolet rays – ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). Each can cause different types of skin damage, including premature aging and skin cancer.

“On the opposite side of the visible light spectrum, infrared rays are what causes the warmth you feel when you’re in the sun,” he says. “You don’t feel the UV rays until later, but they’re there. Usually you feel them as heat when your skin gets burned. The warmth of the infrared rays, however, can cause your blood vessels to dilate, which sometimes worsens the damage from the UV rays.”

UVB rays can cause mutations in the DNA of your skin cells.

“As you build up more mutations over time, it increases your risk of developing a cancer cell,” Dr. Cooper says. “That can be a melanoma, a basal cell carcinoma or a squamous cell carcinoma.”

UVA rays, he says, can cause skin cancer by another method.

“Instead of causing direct DNA damage, UVA rays damage oxygen molecules that in turn can result in DNA mutations,” Dr. Cooper says. “Those mutations not only can cause cancer, but other conditions as well. Sometimes cells will protect themselves against cancer by shutting down a lot of their DNA. As a result, your skin can get wrinkly, baggy and bruise easily, and loses that nice, rosy glow.”

Too often, people put too much confidence in sunscreen to protect their skin.

“It’s called sunscreen for a reason,” he says. “It screens the suns rays, but doesn’t completely block them. It’s just a matter of how quickly it lets them through. The best way to shield yourself or your children is to avoid direct sunlight as much as possible.”

Dr. Cooper recommends this three-part skin protection strategy:

  1. Avoid the mid-day sun. Consider doing outdoor activities early or late in the day, when the sun’s rays are less intense than in the middle of the day.
    “A good rule of thumb is if your shadow is shorter than you are, it’s a high risk time to be in the sun,” he says.
  2. Wear hats and protective clothing. When you need to be out in the mid-day sun, a wide-brimmed hat can help to shade your nose, face, scalp and ears from direct sunlight.
    “I’m not a fan of the visors because they don’t protect the top of the head like a hat does,” Dr. Cooper says. “I’ve had several of my patients who were visor wearers get invasive melanomas in the area where their hair parts. Baseball caps can protect the top of the scalp but leave the ears and sides of the face exposed.”
    Clothing that lets a lot of light show through probably isn’t very protective either.
    “You want UV-protective clothing,” Dr. Cooper says. “Some lines of clothing have UV protection built into the fabric.”
  3. Select sunscreen wisely. Sunscreen ratings, which are usually presented with a number, can be confusing.
    “There is more to consider than just a number,” he says. “Most sunscreens provide UVA protection, but be sure that the label confirms both UVA and UVB protection. You want the number to be at least 45 if possible. If you can’t get 45, 30 is better than nothing. If you’re going to be out in the midday sun, none of them really work as well as the number says, so you need to be sure to put it on thick, and remember to reapply it after a few hours – especially if you’re swimming or sweating heavily.”
    Also consider what activity you’re doing. If you’re swinging a baseball bat, golf club or tennis racket, you probably won’t want to have an oily substance on your hands. Consider using an alcohol-based gel. However, if you have dry skin, a creamy or oil base will be more soothing than an alcohol-based product, such as a gel or a spray.
    “If you are sweating or swimming, you’ll want to use a water-resistant sunscreen,” he says.
    Spray sunscreens, he says, may not be the best choice for several reasons, including inconsistent coverage.
    “Typically, mom is spraying sunscreen on a kid who is running away from her,” Dr. Cooper says. “You don’t know how well it is going on, so you’ll want to spread it around after spraying. It also isn't clear how safe it is to be inhaling the spray. So if you’re going to use a spray, apply it in a well-ventilated area.”
    Sprays, however, can be useful for ears and scalps.

There is a way to do “safe sun,” Dr. Cooper says.

“With the proper precautions, it's quite easy to enjoy the outdoors without taking on the risk of skin cancer and premature aging,” he says. And, he adds, don’t forget to wear sunglasses.

Kevin Cooper, MD is a dermatologist and dermatology department chair at University Hospitals, and lead dermatologist for the Cleveland Browns. You can request an appointment with Dr. Cooper or any other University Hospitals doctor online.

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