You love outdoor sports, so you slap on some sunscreen and head out. But it’s just not that simple.
“More than 99 percent of skin cancers are the result of excessive amounts of ultraviolet light (from the sun),” says Dr. Bill Applegarth, a dermatologist with offices in Valparaiso and LaPorte.
The sun’s ultraviolet rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes, says Dr. Michael Romberg, a surgeon and wound care specialist who treats skin cancer at Ingalls Health System in Harvey, Illinois. About a million Americans each year get some form of skin cancer, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Applegarth explains there are three types of skin carcinomas:
• basal cell: most common, least dangerous
• squamous cell: second most common
• melanoma: least common, most dangerous
“Most skin cancer is largely preventable,” says Romberg.
“Here in Northwest Indiana we love our baseball and softball, and that’s great,” but, he notes, excessive exposure to the sun up to about the age of 20 puts you “at very high risk for skin cancer later in life.”
Romberg cites a patient who had been a competitive swimmer and lifeguard. As an older man he developed a melanoma, fortunately detected early. But that’s not always the case; it was estimated more than 10,000 people would die of melanoma in 2016, the most recent estimate available.
Sunscreen is essential, but read the label. Recommendations range from a minimum SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 to Applegarth’s preferred 30. He says Neutrogena’s sunscreen with its patented Helioplex does the best job blocking UVA and UVB rays, both of which can cause skin cancer. But whatever brand, look for that SPF number – and know that some experts say an SPF of 50 or more doesn’t offer any more protection.
Apply sunscreen about 20 minutes before you go out, “because it takes 20 minutes for it to bind with skin,” says Applegarth. Reapply every two to three hours (set your smartphone alarm as a reminder) and after swimming, sweating, or using a towel. Some sunscreens have an expiration date; if it doesn’t, toss it after three years. Don’t rely on makeup for protection unless it has at least SPF 15.
Clothing matters. For hats, a wide brim (at least 3 inches) and tight weave is best, says Romberg; straw hat, not so much. He says some clothing has UV protection in the fabric. Regardless, says Applegarth, “the darker and the tighter the weave, the more protection. A white T-shirt does not offer a lot of UV protection.”
The sports venue matters, too. The CDC says surfaces such as concrete and sand reflect sun and are prevalent in tennis, beach volleyball, bicycling, running and more. Windsurfers, boaters – any sport on or near water, including water hazards on the golf course – get a double whammy of UV rays, too. Romberg says a lot of fishing enthusiasts are showing up with skin cancers.
Don’t let a cloudy day fool you. “You’d think a cloudy day would be less risky, but the sun’s rays then can actually be more harmful because a lot of people let their guard down,” says Romberg. The CDC also reports that UV levels are higher on partly cloudy days than clear ones. Applegarth adds: “Temperature has absolutely nothing to do with the amount of UV light on the skin. If you have the option, avoid the peak hours of UV rays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.”
Both doctors emphasize that early detection is critical and urge a yearly professional skin check. The CDC web site has more info at www.cdc.gov. Search for sun safety.
Go. Play. Be safe.