Fellow Santa Monicans, we are all certainly lucky to be living in this paradise! Having recently moved from the Northeast, we at Doctors’ Orders are particularly grateful that we no longer own a snow shovel or winter coat and live under the warm California sun. That being said, we must all take the necessary precautions to avoid health problems from excessive sun exposure.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas are the two most common types of skin cancer. While both are highly curable, both can lead to significant disfigurement. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, also can lead to disfigurement, but carries with it a much higher risk for morbidity and mortality as well. All three types of skin cancer are directly linked to sunlight exposure.
People at increased risk for skin cancer include those with lighter skin color, blue or green eyes, as well as blonde or red hair. Additionally, people that have gotten sunburns early in life and those that easily burn are at increased risk. Those of us who have a history of indoor tanning also have increased risk of skin cancer, as the ultraviolet rays from tanning booths are the same as from the sun.
Clearly, we can’t modify our God-given risk factors, so what steps can we take to alleviate our risk of skin cancer? The CDC makes several recommendations. First, stay as covered up as possible by wearing clothing to protect exposed skin. Additionally, wearing hats with a wide brim to protect not just the head and face, but ears and neck as well, and wearing sunglasses that wrap around your face is highly recommended. Finally, stay in the shade as much as possible during the middle of the day when the sun is the brightest.
Obviously, we don’t always want stay covered and hide in the shade. Sometimes, we just want to go surfing or just lay on the beach! Because of this, it is important to wear sunscreen on all areas of your skin that are exposed to the sun. Make sure to wear sunscreen that is at least SPF 15 and remember to reapply multiple times throughout the day, particularly after prolonged sun exposure or getting wet from the ocean or perspiration. You can get sunscreen at almost every local area grocery store or convenience store.
Make sure that both your sunglasses and sunscreen protect from both UVA and UVB rays. These are the main types of ultraviolet rays we are exposed to. And definitely avoid indoor tanning.
While the U.S. Preventative Services Task Force (USPTF) does not recommend for or against skin cancer screening, we at Doctors’ Orders recommend discussing sun exposure whenever you go to see your doctor. Additionally, make sure to see your doctor if you have any new moles or change in existing moles.
Sun exposure not only can lead to skin cancer, but it can cause other problems as well. Prolonged sun exposure can lead to wrinkles, as well as cataracts. The steps we described above can help prevent these problems as well. Let’s keep enjoying the sun, Santa Monica! But let’s do it safely.
Sion Roy and Kathleen Ruchalski are a husband and wife physician duo who live in Santa Monica. Dr. Roy is a cardiology fellow and Dr. Ruchalski is a radiology resident at UCLA. Please e-mail them at email@example.com with comments and questions. The opinions in this column are not intended as individual medical advice, treatment or diagnosis, as only your doctor knows you well enough to do that.