Most of us know that too much sun exposure can make you look old before your time. Wrinkles, leathery skin, brown "liver spots" and precancerous or cancerous skin lesions are caused by sun damage. So are eye problems such as cataracts, macular degeneration, damage to the retina and growths on the cornea called pterygium.
These sun-related health concerns are abstract concepts for teenagers and young adults. To them, these skin and eye problems are something that "old people" have to deal with. Why bother worrying about something so far in the future?
This point of view makes it difficult for young people to see the point of dealing with sunscreen, sunglasses and hats. It's hard for them to appreciate the fact that the majority of their lifetime sun exposure and damage will occur before the age of 18.
Sun damage is caused by ultraviolet radiation from the sun, called UVA and UVB rays. The ozone layer, way up in the stratosphere, blocks out UVB rays to some extent. But, with the depletion of the ozone layer (because of our use of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemicals), more harmful rays now reach the earth.
For every 1 percent decrease in the ozone layer, there has been a 3 to 6 percent increase in skin cancer rates.
Our skin becomes tan when it has been damaged by the sun's ultraviolet rays. The skin produces more melanin when it has been injured. Pale skin is healthy skin.
Most skin cancers appear on parts of the body that get the most sun: the face, ears, neck, forearms and hands. Certain types of skin cancers, such as basal and squamous cell cancers are highly curable.
Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer, because it can spread to the lymph nodes, lungs and other organs. There are more than 50,000 new cases of melanoma each year in this country. One in 75 people will develop melanoma in their lifetime; 1 in 5 will develop some type of skin cancer.
People with fair skin, a tendency to freckle and lots of moles are at highest risk for melanoma. Also, a history of having two or more severe, blistering sunburns as a child increases the risk.
Workers who have occupational exposure to certain chemicals (coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds and radium) also have an increased risk of skin cancer, so should be extra-careful about sun exposure.
Tanning salons may claim to be safe, but they still expose you to significant levels of UVA radiation. A tanning salon tan doesn't protect you from natural UVB rays. Also, the risk of eye damage from tanning booths is serious. Simply closing your eyes, using a cotton ball on your eyelids, or wearing ordinary sunglasses will not protect your eyes the way specially designed eye shields will.
The American Cancer Society recommends: Slip! Slop! Slap! Wrap!
Slip on a shirt
Slop on sunscreen
Slap on a wide brimmed hat
Wrap on sunglasses that block UV rays
Also, seek the shade between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the most ultraviolet radiation reaches the Earth.
Your sunscreen should be SPF (sun protection factor) 15 or higher. Check the expiration date, because sunscreen loses its effectiveness. If it's more than three years old, throw it out.
The American Academy of Dermatology suggests using sunscreen if you'll be outside for 20 minutes or more. Sunscreen should be applied at least 15 minutes before going outside for maximum protection. Waterproof types last the longest, but all sunscreens need to be reapplied frequently.
So, teach kids good habits about protecting themselves from the sun. They might not like it now, but they'll thank you when they're 40.
Kathryn B. Brown is a family nurse practitioner with a master's degree in nursing from OHSU. Is there a health topic you would like to read about? Send your idea to email@example.com.