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See the Signs, Save Your Skin

GE Healthcare HealthAhead week 5-1

This week, #HealthAhead has tips to help you enjoy the summer sun while keeping your skin healthy. It’s been a hot July in many areas, and temperatures are growing hotter with August  underway. Beaches the world over are bustling with sun seekers.  As stories about a skin cancer epidemic hit the news, here’s some information to help  make sense of it all. Read on for #HealthAhead’s tips for staying healthy this summer and beyond.

Save your skin

Our skin is the biggest organ of our body, yet perhaps the one we take the least notice of. It works tirelessly to protect us from the elements and keep our bodies at a relatively constant temperature. Our skin is constantly growing and renewing itself, shedding old skin cells for new ones.1

The sun emits strong ultraviolet (UV) rays that penetrate deep into the layers of our skin. UV is essential for us to make enough vitamin D, but prolonged exposure will cause our skin to tan or burn. It can also damage the DNA in our skin cells, making them more prone to growing erratically, which is how tumors form. Left untreated, a skin tumor will keep on growing and may spread to other organs.2

On July 30th, US Surgeon General Boris D Lushniak warned of a spike in US rates of melanoma, the most dangerous and deadly form of skin cancer. It causes over 75 percent of cancer-related deaths. A report was released along with data showing a drastic increase in cases of melanoma since 1975. The report states that melanoma accounts for $3.3 billion in treatment and lost work hours. And it’s not only in the United States.3 The latest statistics from the World Health Organization (WHO) show that melanoma rates are steadily increasing across the globe, especially among fair-skinned populations.4

Generation tan

A generation of tanning enthusiasts is being blamed for the rise in new cases of melanoma. Being tanned is commonly associated with being healthy, not to mention being wealthy enough to spend time lazing around in the sun.

Sporting a glowing cinnamon tan has become a status symbol that some are willing to pay large amounts to obtain. Thus came the rise of the UV tanning bed.  Tanning beds expose users to unnaturally high doses of UV, which is extremely damaging to skin cells and raises the chances of developing skin cancer by 74 percent. It has even been reported that more skin cancers are caused by tanning beds than lung cancers are caused by smoking.5

Shedding some light

Here are some common (not to mention dangerous) myths about tanning and sun exposure.

“Skin cancer only affects fair-skinned people”

While it is true that fair-skinned people are more prone to getting sunburn and later developing skin cancer, excessive UV exposure will harm anyone’s health regardless of their skin color. It is wrong to assume that those of darker complexion need not apply sunscreen when exposed to the sun for long periods of time.

“A base tan is a safe tan”

This is not true. There is a common misconception that a tan protects the body against sunburn. A tan is actually a sign of injury from UV rays, and a so-called ‘base’ tan does very little to provide protection from further damage.

“An SPF 50 sunscreen is all you need”

Most Sun protection factor (SPF) sunscreens only protect the skin from UVB rays, but UVA rays are also damaging. Be sure to use a broad spectrum UVA/UVB sunscreen for maximum sunburn protection.

“Tanning beds are safer than sunlight, as the UV dose is controlled”

This is not true. The UV radiation in a tanning bed is up to twelve times stronger than that of the Sun, and studies have shown that using a UV tanning bed just four times a year raises the chance of developing skin cancer by 11 percent.

Know your moles

Moles are small collections of pigmented skin cells. They are perfectly normal, but if they start to grow quickly or change shape, there may be cause for concern. It is important to take notice of any new moles that appear on your skin, and to keep track of any changes in their appearance.

However, not all skin cancers arise from moles. Recent research has shown that an intense itching sensation over an area of skin could also be a symptom of skin cancer. Most moles are harmless, but knowing the ABCDE of moles can help you recognize if things are going wrong.

A – Asymmetry. A normal mole is round in shape and grows evenly. Beware of uneven and asymmetrical moles as these may indicate the irregular skin cell growth associated with a tumor.

B – Borders. Does it have smooth or ragged edges? As mentioned above, a normal mole will grow evenly, with defined and smooth edges. Ragged and blurred edges should set off alarm bells.

C – Color. Healthy, regular moles are uniform in color as well as shape. Do you have a mole that is different shades of brown or pink? Get it checked out.

D – Diameter. Most melanoma tumors are wider than 6 millimeters, and will continue to grow outwards. However, there are exceptions to this rule, as some harmless moles may be large and some cancerous moles may be small.

E – Elevation. Is the mole raised? Cancerous moles usually become raised and bumpy as they grow, while healthy moles either stay flat or slightly raised.

Keep it under wraps

As the American Cancer Society campaign says, slip, slop, slap and wrap!6 As well as protecting you from sunburn and skin cancer, regularly using sunscreen has anti-ageing effects… yet another reason to pick up the habit this week.

Next Monday, #HealthAhead tackles the ever-pertinent issue of smoking. Are E-cigarettes really that much healthier than traditional cigarettes? Why do some people find it harder than others to quit? For the answers to these questions and more, check back next week and keep track of the #HealthAhead hashtag on Twitter.

References

1 – http://health.howstuffworks.com/skin-care/information/anatomy/skin.htm

2 – http://www.skincancer.org/prevention/uva-and-uvb

3 – http://www.surgeongeneral.gov/library/calls/prevent-skin-cancer/call-to-action-prevent-skin-cancer.pdf

4 – http://www.who.int/uv/health/en/

5 – http://www.skincancer.org/news/tanning/international

6 – http://www.cancer.org/healthy/morewaysacshelpsyoustaywell/acs-skin-cancer-prevention-activities

More Information

American Cancer Society

Cancer Research UK

WHO Skin Cancer Statistics

How to Prevent Skin Cancer by Loving the Skin You’re In

Don’t Fry Day