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As sun and warmer temperatures lure people outdoors, protecting skin is essential

As sun and warmer temperatures lure people outdoors, protecting skin is essential

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Spring has arrived and summer is right around the corner. But one condition does not change with the seasons or weather. It is the tendency of Utahns to suffer from dry and sun damaged skin. In fact, figures compiled by the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention in 2020 show Utah led the nation from 2017-2019 with the highest rate of diagnosed melanoma or skin cancer cases.

"Elevation plays a part in the high number, along with outdoor sports, which go on all year round in Utah," says Annie Ulloa, a medical esthetician in the Department of Dermatology at University of Utah. "And a lot of people don't take skin cancer seriously yet, especially with much of the damage showing up in your later years."

In her job, Ulloa treats all types of sun-damaged skin. She uses a variety of treatments, including lasers and chemical peels, to address an individual patient's condition. But her work begins only after a dermatologist examines the patient's skin and comes to conclusions about the extent and severity of the damage.

"Having a physician diagnose the patient's condition before we select treatment options is important to ensure we are not going to worsen their condition or glaze over what could actually be skin cancer or other chronic conditions," Ulloa says. "For example, some may think they just have some dry, scaly spots, and what they really have are pre-cancers that should be treated by a physician."

Estheticians and dermatologists say the key to protecting your skin from premature aging and sun damage is prevention. "As great as it is that we can reverse some of that cosmetic damage to the skin, it is much harder to reverse skin cancer and treat it," Ulloa says.

It is never too early or too late to practice good sun protection, and as we move into the summer months in Utah, warmer temperatures and more sunny days are good reminders to start or restart healthy habits.

"We recommend applying sunscreen (SPF 50 but no lower than SPF 30) every morning, especially on the drive to work," Ulloa says. "Most people don't realize that is one place where we are getting so much sun exposure. The windows reflect the light, so we see a lot more superficial skin cancers on the left side of the face."

As sun and warmer temperatures lure people outdoors, protecting skin is essential
Photo: bbernard/Shutterstock.com

Of course, no matter where people work, the summer months often mean more time outdoors. Ulloa and the dermatologists she works alongside recommend mineral sunscreens, which contain ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. "These are considered physical sunscreens, so they pretty much just sit on the skin and reflect the sun exposure off of it, even before the harmful rays reach any layer of your skin," Ulloa says.

The chemical sunscreens you can find on most store shelves do not offer as much protection because they allow the sun to penetrate the outer layer of the skin and tan or freckle it. "The physical sunscreens wear much better than the chemical ones, even though you won't get a tan with them," Ulloa warns. "But I think people forget that getting a tan is not healthy—that's your skin trying to protect itself."

Chemical sunscreens also require more reapplication to ensure they will continue to protect the skin throughout the day. Ulloa suggests that reapplication is a necessity because most people don't apply enough sunscreen to begin with and fail to completely cover some of those hard-to-reach areas. Later, those areas of the skin can be exposed depending on the activities you are doing outdoors. It might also help to mix the sunscreen with a good moisturizer.

"Utah can be very hot, and it is also very dry here, but moisturized skin is less prone to the skin cancers," Ulloa says. "A lot of people are not moisturizing enough here, and whether it is summer or winter, we just want people to be healthy and moisturized."

A lot of the patients Ulloa treats are hoping to reverse the damage they did to their skin when they were much younger. That's why she brings up another important benefit of sun protection. "The main concern really is skin cancer, but I think a motivation for wearing sunscreen can also be that the sun is what causes about 50% of our aging," she says. "If we can be diligent about our sunscreen usage, that can even help us maintain our younger looks for a little bit longer and avoid some of the cosmetic treatments that people are into."

Ulloa has some final pieces of advice as Utahns prepare to spend more time in the state's great outdoors. Even on an overcast day, ultraviolet rays are still poking through the clouds, so you need protection. For those still reluctant to wear sunscreen, SPF shirts, hats, sunglasses, and other protective clothing keep harsh UV rays from harming delicate areas of the head and face. It doesn't have to be hard to enjoy the sun safely.

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University of Utah Health

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