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As Sun Sizzles, Simple Precautions Can Save Your Skin

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Pull a muscle playing at the beach this summer and you'll feel the pain right away. Get a bad sunburn, and it could make you look older than you are 20, 30 or even 40 years from now.

It could even kill you.

Sun exposure and sunburn are major causes of leathery, wrinkled skin that adds years to your looks. More immediately, it can cause peeling, dryness, pimples, brown spots and other discoloration. It can even cause or aggravate skin problems such as rosacea (which affects about 14 million Americans).

Far worse, sun exposure is the major reason for skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States. That includes melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Skin cancer affects about 1 million Americans annually and is responsible for 2 percent of cancer deaths. That was an estimated 7,400 deaths in 2002, mostly from melanoma.

Texans know the sun is pretty much a year-round threat if we don't treat it with respect. Summer is the most dangerous time, because with the Earth's seasonal tilt, ol' Sol is more directly overhead.

For young people, it's a difficult message to get across because it's hard for those with soft, smooth skin and little life experience to imagine being 40 or wrinkled.

You can tell them they are going to look awful,'' said Asra Ali, assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Medical School at Houston.It's very hard to convince teenagers not to go to the tanning booth or to wear sunscreen.''

Like smoking, which also ages skin and causes cancer, sun exposure does the most damage during youth but takes years to have a visible effect. Usually. Sometimes it doesn't wait.

It is more a disease of the elderly, but we are seeing younger and younger kids coming in with skin cancer,'' said Ida Orengo, associate professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine.I have 14- and 16-year-old kids coming in with basal cell (carcinomas) on their noses. Kids are playing more soccer and baseball and extracurricular activities in the sun.''

The most effective way to avoid sun damage is just to avoid the sun. Most of us are not willing to do that. That leaves countermeasures. The most effective: Wear lots of sunscreen with a high SPF (sun-protection factor) - at least SPF 15 - and wear protective clothing.

The good news is that most sun damage can be prevented. More encouraging, even if you get melanoma, you have a good chance of surviving if you spot it early.

Our sun-safety quiz, compiled with the help of Orengo, Ali and Houston dermatologist Dr. Suzanne Bruce, offers tips that will make your outdoor activities smarter and more healthful.

1. How much sunscreen is enough to protect your face from damage?

a. one 6-ounce bottle each application.

b. two to four drops.

c. about a tablespoon.

d. a baseball cap full.

Answer: (c) Don't be skimpy with sunscreen, dermatologists say. Use a tablespoon of sunscreen for the face and similar large amounts for arms, chest, back, neck and any exposed skin.

2. For effective sun protection, dermatologists recommend an SPF of at least:

a. 4.

b. 15.

c. 30.

e. 45.

Answer: (b) The actual protection effect does not reach 90 percent or greater until you get to SPF 15. If using very high SPF protection, look for products with sunblocks zinc oxide, titanium dioxide or Parsol (avodenzone) listed in the active ingredients.

3. When should you apply sunscreen?

a. When you notice your skin turning pink.

b. Just as you are going into the sun.

c. 30 minutes before sun exposure.

d. When your mother tells you.

Answer: (c) A half-hour head start gives your skin time to absorb the effective protection. (But it's always good to listen to your mother.)

4. Sun skin damage is:

a. totally reversible.

b. totally irreversible.

c. partially reversible with proper treatment.

Answer: (c) Sun damages the skin's ability to renew itself and deteriorates the skin's natural collagen. Our epidermal cells constantly grow at the base of the epidermis and work their way to the surface and slough off. Topical agents such as Retin A help renew the skin's surface and help stimulate cells that make collagen, which helps eliminate wrinkles.

5. Not long ago it was common for young women to slather on a concoction of baby oil and iodine and lie in the sun. This was a fast but harmless way to get a tan.

True or false?

Answer: (False) Sorry, that's a major no-no that will only increase sun damage.

6. Future bad effects from overexposure to sun as a teenager or young adult include:

a. increased likelihood of skin cancer.

b. rough, wrinkled skin.

c. orange hair.

d. death.

Answer: (a, b and d) It can take years, but sun damage eventually catches up with everyone. If the result is the kind of skin cancer called melanoma, it can even be fatal.

7. Sunburn is painful and a nuisance, but for kids it's an unavoidable and harmless part of growing up.

True or false?

Answer: (False) Most skin cancer stems from exposure that begins in childhood. Sunburn-prevention methods include sunscreens, protective clothing such as hats, and limiting sun exposure. In Australia, parents teach the slogan ``slip, slap and slop'': Slip a shirt on, slap a hat on and slop sunscreen on.

8. Skin cancer is annoying but almost never very serious.

True or false?

Answer: (False) It affects 1 million Americans annually and is responsible for 2 percent of cancer deaths.

9. Your dog, cat, potbellied pig or other pet has no worries from sun damage and can stay in direct sun all day, every day.

True or false?

Answer: (False) Like their masters, dogs and cats and pigs are mammals and have the same dangers from sunburn, including pain, tumors and melanoma. So if you're planning a summer haircut to keep Fido cool, don't make it too close to the skin - his coat is his sun protection.

10. How often should you reapply sunscreen if its rating is SPF 15, SPF 30 or SPF 45?

a. 15 minutes, 30 minutes, 45 minutes.

b. 1 hour, 2 hours, 3 hours.

c. every two hours.

d. once a day, in the morning.

Answer: (c) Yes, this was a trick question. A higher SPF means you can stay in the sun longer without burning, but that has nothing to do with how frequently you need to apply sunscreen. Application every two hours keeps you on the safe side.

11. How does the sun contribute to rosacea, the facial redness experienced by many fair-skinned Americans?

Answer: People with rosacea have too many blood vessels at the surface of their skin because of sun damage. It usually is seen on their cheeks and nose.

12. What type of sunscreen is safest for young kids?

Answer: Children need a ``broad spectrum'' sunscreen to stop both UVB and UVA rays. Look for a mineral-based sunblock with zinc oxide, titanium dioxide and Parsol (avobenzone).

13. You cannot get sun damage:

a. in a car, because windows stop damaging rays.

b. in a tanning bed, because their rays are not harmful.

c. on a beach blanket at high noon in Galveston in June, because the gods protect beasts and madmen.

d: none of the above.

Answer: (d) Come on, you knew this - right? Auto glass can stop those nasty UVB rays, but it won't stop the UVA rays that make you wrinkle and freckle. Same for tanning beds. As for Galveston - take a big umbrella.

14. Which of the following makes a person a high risk for skin cancer?

a. sunburned to blistering more than three times as a youth.

b. blond or red hair and blue, green or hazel eyes.

c. lots of freckles.

d. an indoor job.

e. all of the above.

Answer: (a, b and c) The fair-haired among us are at highest risk. Of course, those working outdoors fare worse than the office types.


(The Houston Chronicle web site is at )

c.2003 Houston Chronicle

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