Sun protection prevents cancer, early aging

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Some people may remember when tropical tanning and baby oils were the skin products of choice on trips to the beach and ski slopes. In those days, SPF was not exactly a common household acronym.

Many former sun worshipers now are paying for years of unprotected skin with brown spots, wrinkles and worse, cancer. Sun exposure is responsible for 90 percent of skin cancer, the most common of all cancers, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

The situation is no different in Northwest Colorado, where the high altitude and residents' active lifestyles have made skin cancer an "epidemic," said dermatologist Sandra Eivins of the Dermatology Center of Steamboat Springs.

"The sun is an enormous culprit," Eivins said, explaining that ultraviolet radiation from the sun damages skin cells and accelerates the skin's aging process by destroying substances such as collagen, responsible for elasticity.

The sun's damage also is cumulative, so a person's chance of skin cancer increases with the amount and intensity of exposure. Five or more sunburns double a person's risk of developing skin cancer, according to the Foundation.

"In Steamboat we get much more UV radiation than we get at the beach : It's deceptive because it's so cool here," Eivins said, noting that UV exposure increases 10 percent with every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.

Paula Hays, 56, is a model for good skin care. She knew early on that she could not risk sunburns with her fair skin.

"I've pretty much always taken care of my skin," said Hayes, who uses a daily moisturizer with sunscreen, protects herself with hats and higher SPF sunscreen when outdoors and takes vitamins containing Omega-3 oils, geared toward healthy skin.

An "indoor person," she achieves a healthy tan with sunless tanning lotions and also requests skin checks during physicals.

Regular skin check ups with a dermatologist and doctor and self-exams are important to detecting skin cancers, which are among the most curable cancers if discovered early.

Basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas account for most skin cancer and tend to show up on areas exposed to the sun including face scalp, ears, neck, shoulders and back.

Serious signs include small, pearly nodules that slowly increase in size, wart-like growths and non-healing lesions.

"Ninety percent of the time people say they have a pimple that won't heal," Eivins said.

Melanoma accounts for about 4 percent of skin cancers but is responsible for most skin cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society, which estimates about 7,900 people will die of the disease this year.

Excessive sun exposure is a big culprit, but genetics and many moles on the body also contribute to melanoma risk. The disease often occurs on existing moles and can show up anywhere on the body, including the groin and bottoms of the feet, Eivins said.

Although it's tempting to lament a few too many sunburns it's never too late to start being conscience of sun protection.

The best defenses, of course, are clothing and broad-spectrum sunscreens that protect against UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreens should be applied 30 minutes before going outdoors and worn even on cloudy days.

People should look for sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are particularly effective against both types of UV radiation and also reflect the sun off the skin so it doesn't penetrate the epidermis, Eivins said.

Daily moisturizers with sunscreen are critical in Colorado's dry climate and protecting skin from the wind, particularly on the ski slopes, also is important because wind accelerates UV damage.

Other defenses that can help slow down the aging process and prevent cancer include anti-oxidant moisturizers or serums and retinoid crÃmes, which are derived from vitamin A and have been found to reduce the effects of sun damage, Eivins said.

Tamera Manzanares can be reached at tammarie74@yahoo.com.

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