Sun-loving Mainers, protect your skin

Posted June 20, 2011, at 4:34 p.m.

Living in Maine, our exposure to the sun’s rays can be a rare pleasure. After a long winter and dreary spring, we long for summer weather. But its arrival often leads to overexposure to sun and its damaging effects, including sunburn, premature aging and skin cancer.

There are measures that everyone should take to decrease the risk of overexposure to the sun and the ultraviolet radiation it emits so powerfully. Wearing sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats to shade the face, staying out of the sun during peak midday hours and applying sunscreen are all good ways to protect ourselves.

Choosing sunscreen can be confusing. However, it should soon be easier. The federal Food and Drug Administration is making changes to how sunscreens will be labeled. The new rules will tell consumers which products offer “broad protection” from both major forms of ultraviolet radiation. One form, called UVA, causes wrinkles, while another, UVB, causes burns. Both can cause skin cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

Although sunscreens now tout their sunburn protection factor, or SPF, this system only measures protection from burns. Prior rules on sunscreens dealt almost exclusively with protection against UVB radiation from the sun and did not address skin cancer and early skin aging caused by UVA rays. After reviewing the latest science, the FDA has determined that sufficient data are available to establish a standard “broad spectrum” test procedure that measures the comparative UVA and UVB protection in a given product. This designation will give us better information on which sunscreen will offer the greatest protection.

Under the new rule, sunscreens will no longer be allowed to market themselves as “sun block,” “sun proof” or “waterproof.”  Instead, sunscreens will be allowed to say only whether they are “water resistant” for either 40 minutes or 80 minutes.

In the meantime, when using sunscreens, it is very important to use enough and apply it often.  The recommended application is one ounce — that’s two tablespoons, a golf ball sized amount, or enough to fill a shot glass — for the entire adult body, reapplied every two to three hours.

It is important to note that tanning lamps and tanning beds also emit harmful ultraviolet radiation. On average, indoor tanners are 74 percent more likely to develop the deadly skin cancer called melanoma than nontanners. They also are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell skin cancer and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell skin cancer. Sunscreen should be used for indoor tanning as well as outdoor sun exposure.

More than 2 million Americans are diagnosed with skin cancer each year, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. While most skin cancers are curable, squamous cell carcinomas kill 2,500 Americans a year and melanoma kills 8,700, according to the American Cancer Society.

Physician Assistant Ken Nadeau is a member of the Society of Dermatology Physician Assistants and performs skin evaluations and biopsies at Penobscot Community Health Care.

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