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Healthy living: It's never too late to protect yourself from the sun

Posted - Aug. 2, 2004 at 3:20 p.m.



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We seem to be playing Russian roulette with exposure to the sun.

Reminded time and again that a single blistering sunburn doubles the likelihood of developing malignant melanoma, we have a tendency to shrug off the news with, "Well, it's probably too late for me now anyway."

For whatever reason, a lot of us have already had at least a dozen blistering sunburns. Most of mine have been from weekends at the lake - any weekend, any lake. Name your poison.

If you are still nursing a burn or sporting a dark tan from a recent outing, it may be too late for still another warning, but here goes: Beginning this year, one person in this country will die of melanoma every hour, and the number of new cases is increasing about 4 percent per year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology.

Melanoma will be diagnosed in an estimated 91,900 people this year. A check of the files found that when I wrote about the skin-cancer epidemic in 1992, the number of new melanoma cases expected was 32,000. In 1997, it was up to 40,000.

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Blame it on the baby boomers.

A generation after most young people thought that smoking was somehow sophisticated and sexy, we baby boomers made the same stupid mistake about tanning.

In the late '60s, when I got most of my burns, we had an excuse for not using sunscreen: It wasn't available yet. But we had no excuse for slathering on the iodine and baby oil and lying out for hours at a time, beginning as close to noon as we could so it didn't take so long.

Dry, wrinkled, peeling, burning, red skin and water blisters should have tipped us off that overexposure to the sun was not good for us.

With the incidence of skin cancer still on the rise - more than 1 million new cases, including basal-cell and squamous-cell carcinoma and melanoma, will be diagnosed this year - going out unprotected yet again is playing Russian roulette.

Voluntary exposure to excessive ultraviolet light - too much time out in the sun - is the chief cause of skin cancer. And exposure is cumulative. Just because that burn you got on your senior-class trip hasn't caused cancer yet doesn't mean that it won't, especially with an ultraviolet booster every year or so.

To avoid the skin-cancer risks that come with a sunburn, the Mayo Clinic Health Letter recommends that you:

- Buy adequate protection. Choose a sunscreen with a sun-protection factor of at least 15 and be sure that it protects against ultraviolet A and B rays.

- Select a sunscreen that suits your needs. Use a waterproof brand if you will be swimming, a water-based sunscreen if you are prone to acne. If your skin reacts badly to one sunscreen, try one with different ingredients.

- Prepare in advance. Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before you go outside, even on cloudy days. UV rays can penetrate cloud cover.

- Apply thickly and thoroughly to all exposed skin. A liberal application is 1 ounce, about the amount in a shot glass. Most people don't use enough.

- Reapply every two hours. Heavy perspiration, water and towel drying can remove sunscreen, even waterproof sunscreen.

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Carolyn Poirot writes a weekly health column for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Contact her at cpoirot@star-telegram.com or (817) 390-7687.

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(c) 2004, Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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