You may have heard about Kurt Vonnegut’s famous graduation speech telling graduates to “Wear Sunscreen.” It went viral in 1997 and inspired Baz Luhrmann to write the spoken word song “Everybody’s Free to Wear Sunscreen.” While Vonnegut’s speech is an urban myth – it was actually an essay written by Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich entitled “Advice, like youth, probably just wasted on the young,” in which Schmich presents the essay as the commencement speech she would give if she were ever asked to speak – the message is important. Wear sunscreen!
Let’s start with the “shallow” stuff: exposure to sunlight is responsible for 90% of the wrinkles, blotches, sagging and hyperpigmentation that we typically attribute to age. That’s right—what we think of as a normal part of growing older is really the cumulative effects of sun damage, says the Skin Cancer Foundation. Limiting your sun exposure and wearing sunscreen when you do catch those rays will help keep sun damage at bay. This is one place where both beauty and health really are skin deep!
And now for more serious stuff. According to the Cleveland Clinic, the primary cause of skin cancer is overexposure to sunlight, especially when it results in sunburn and blistering. Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun damage DNA in your skin, allowing abnormal cells to form and potentially become cancer cells.
While anyone can get skin cancer, the Mayo Clinic says that the following factors may increase your risk:
- Fair skin – less pigment (melanin) in your skin means less protection from UV rays. Blondes and redheads, people with light-colored eyes and those that freckle or burn easily are more likely to develop skin cancer than someone with darker skin. Wear sunscreen and cover up your face with a hat with a wide brim.
- A history of sunburns – if you had one or more blistering sunburns as a child or teen, I’m sad to say that increases your risk of skin cancer as an adult. Sunburns in adulthood are a risk as well. Make sure you slather on the sunscreen and limit your family’s time in the sun. If you’re on a beach vacation, take frequent breaks indoors to cool off and reapply sunscreen.
- Too much sun exposure – anyone who spends a lot of time in the sun may develop skin cancer, even those lucky people who never burn. If you’re not protected by sunscreen, clothing or a hat, the risk increases. Avoid tanning beds and lamps—they count as too much exposure. The Mayo Clinic states that a tan is your skin’s injury response to excessive UV radiation. Sitting all day under an umbrella doesn’t solve the problem either. Remember, when you’re at the beach or the lake, UV rays reflect off the water which can cause an even faster, more acute burn.
- Sunny or high-altitude location – if you live in a sunny, warm climate you’re exposed to more sunlight than people who live in colder areas. Sunlight is strongest in high altitudes, exposing you to more UV radiation.
- Moles – those of us with lots of moles are at an increased risk of skin cancer. Abnormal moles are often large and oddly shaped and can often become cancerous. See a dermatologist at least once a year to get them checked out.
Luckily, there are some simple steps you can take to help prevent skin cancer. And as a bonus, they will keep you looking younger.
Wear sunscreen, lots of it, every day. Sunscreen is not just for the beach or when you’re outdoors at a sporting event. Anyone who’s driven long distances in shorts knows that you can get sunburned riding in the car. Taking an unexpectedly long walk at lunch without protection can cause a burn. The National Foundation for Cancer Research recommends that you use a product with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or more long periods of sun exposure and 15 or more for daily use. And make sure you apply enough: To cover your beach bod, use an ounce at a time and reapply every two hours, more often if you go in the water or exercise enough to sweat. For your face, use roughly a quarter-size blob to cover your face, neck and ears. Find a product that works for you and make sure you apply it in the morning as part of your daily routine. Don’t wait until you are already out in the sun.
Shade and protective clothing are important too. Quite often we hear that we should stay inside between 10:00 AM and 4:00 PM. If you can’t do that, try to wear long sleeves, pants and a wide-brimmed hat, if possible, along with your sunscreen. If it’s too hot for that much clothing, take advantage of shaded areas as often as you can. Trees and umbrellas are your friends. Swimmers can now take advantage of UV protective swimwear while they are in the water.
In addition, make regular skin screenings part of your health-maintenance routine. Dermatologists can let you know your risk factors and recommend how often you should get a skin exam. People with a history of pre-cancers (spots that can develop into cancer), family history of melanoma or other skin cancers should have a full body exam at least once a year. Check your own skin once a month for any change in moles or anything else that looks odd. I, myself—a fair-skinned, freckled redhead—have been going for a skin check every year for at least 10 years, and my dermatologist and I have caught at least 7 spots that were suspect. A quick freeze removes the spot and off I go for another year. If you don’t already have a dermatologist, get a recommendation from your regular doctor. Don’t wait, especially if you are in a high-risk group.
Getting outdoors and having fun is a great way to keep healthy and active. Make sure you take steps to protect your skin so you can enjoy every moment.