Your Health

Don't get burned

Don't Get Burned
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Protect your skin

Skin cancer by the numbers

UV index

Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, Summer 2010

Why is skin care and protection important?

Your skin changes as you age. It becomes thinner and begins to sag, causing wrinkles. It injures more easily and heals more slowly. The older you get, the more important it is to take care of your skin. Common complaints as people get older include dry and itchy skin, wrinkles, sagging skin, color changes, and "age spots." Even more worrisome, however, is the possibility that some of those age spots may turn out to be skin cancer.

Should I limit my exposure to sunlight?

While some exposure to sunshine is necessary for the body to make vitamin D, too much exposure can be damaging to your skin. Most of the skin changes associated with age are due to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) exposure. The closer you are to the sun (for example, living near the equator or at high altitudes), the more exposure to UVR you experience. Damaged skin can repair itself to some extent if further UVR exposure is avoided, so it is worth protecting your skin from too much sun at any age. Recent studies have shown that exposing yourself to the rays of a sun tanning machine are as harmful as direct exposure to the sunlight.

What are the symptoms of sun damage?

Symptoms include:

  • Freckles, "age spots," or moles that suddenly appear, grow, or change color.
  • Dry, rough skin or wrinkling.
  • Small blood vessels showing as red lines on the cheeks, nose, and ears.

Am I at risk for sun damage to my skin?

You are most at risk of sun damage to your skin if you:

  • Have fair skin that freckles and burns easily.
  • Live near the equator or at high altitudes.
  • Work outdoors.
  • Enjoy outdoor hobbies and recreation.
  • Sunbathe.

What is skin cancer and how does it occur?

Too much UVR exposure sometimes leads to skin cancer. Skin cancer is related to how much you are out in the sun without protecting your skin. Exposure to UV rays from sunlight or tanning beds is the most common and easily preventable cause.

Who is at risk?

Everyone is at risk of skin cancer. But the risk of skin cancer is greatest for people who have fair skin that freckles easily. Frequently, these are people with red or blond hair and blue or light-coloured eyes. High-risk professions for skin cancer include farmers, construction workers, other sun-exposed outdoor workers, and vehicle drivers (on their sun-exposed arm). Where you live can also be a risk. People who live in areas where there are high levels on UV radiation from the sun are at greater risk of getting skin cancer.

How can skin cancer be prevented?

  • Avoid direct prolonged exposure to the sun, especially between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun's intensity is greatest. Seek out shade whenever possible.
  • From early spring to the start of fall, wear a wide-brimmed hat, loose fitting shirts with long sleeves and long pants instead of shorts. Clothing made from closely woven material will shield the skin best.
  • Use sunscreen with a "Sun Protective Factor" (SPF) of at least 15 with both UVA and UVB protection. Apply 15 to 30 minutes before you go outside to allow the active ingredients to soak into the skin. Sunscreen should be reapplied every two hours, or more often if swimming or exercising. The lower lip is a common spot for skin cancer to occur, so protect your lips by applying an SPF broad-spectrum lip balm. Do not apply sunscreen to children less than six months old. Babies should be kept in a shady area, out of direct and reflected sunlight.
  • Be careful of medication. Certain prescriptions can make your skin more sensitive to UV rays. Consult your doctor or pharmacist if you have any questions about your medications.
  • Protect your eyes as well as your skin from ultraviolet damage. Wear sunglasses that filter out UV rays.
  • Watch for reflected light, as the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays can bounce back at you from sand, snow, concrete and water.
  • Remember that children can get sun burned on cloudy days, as 80 per cent of the sun's rays penetrate through light clouds, mist and fog.
  • Avoid the use of sunlamps.

Linda Coote is a registered nurse and manager with Health Links - Info Santé, the Winnipeg Health Region's telephone health information service.


About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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