We love sunshine, but skin cancer screenings are a must

Many sunscreens on the market contain lots of hazardous chemicals, and they do not actually provide much protection from the sun.

by Dr. Ann Lovick — 

In Arizona, we receive intense sun exposure almost year-round. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services, Arizona is second only to Australia in skin cancer incidence rates.

We love our sunshine, but we do need to be smart about it. Here are five important guidelines to help protect you and your family:

  1. Cover up with sunscreen and protective clothing
  2. Get regular skin cancer screenings
  3. Watch for signs of heat exhaustion
  4. Stay well hydrated
  5. Avoid midday sun

Many sunscreens on the market contain lots of hazardous chemicals, and they do not actually provide much protection from the sun. The Environmental Working Group has posted its 2010 Sunscreen Guide to the safest and most effective sunscreen brands. Remember to apply sunscreen liberally and often — ideally every hour. Reapply every time you get out of the water, even if you wear waterproof sunscreen. Many people use sunscreen once and never reapply, and then wonder why their skin burned.

For maximum protection from the sun, combine sunscreen use with SPF-rated clothing. Solumbra, by Sun Precautions, Inc., is a clothing line for adults and kids that ranges from hats and shirts to pants and skirts. It is the only clothing manufacturer to receive an SPF rating from the FDA. The clothing is lightweight and breathable so that you can stay comfortably protected in the sun.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends annual skin cancer screenings. Your doctor should visually inspect your skin and look for any abnormalities. Your doctor will evaluate lesions that may be precancerous due to their appearance and size. I recommend everyone do an annual self-exam and consult a dermatologist if you note any suspicious or fast-growing lesions. If you find a lesion that you think may be cancerous, ask yourself the following “ABCs” of important questions:

A — Is the lesion Asymmetrical? To determine symmetry, draw a line down the center of the lesion. If the left side is equal in size to the right side, then the lesion is symmetrical. Asymmetrical lesions are suspicious. If the lesion is symmetrical but the shape changes, consider the lesion suspicious.

B — Are the Borders irregular? The borders should be smooth and distinct. If the borders look like a map of Florida, it may be a precancerous lesion.

C — Does the Color vary? The lesion should be one shade of one color. If the color varies within the borders of the lesion, you need to have it checked by a dermatologist. If the color changes or if there are multiple colors within the borders, have it checked out. If the color spreads outside the borders of the lesion to the surrounding skin, this is a suspicious sign.

D — Is the Diameter of the lesion larger than 6 mm? Keep an eye on any mole or lesion that is bigger than a pencil eraser. If the size changes suddenly and/or rapidly, consult a dermatologist.

E — Is the lesion Elevated? If you run your finger across the lesion and it feels raised from the skin, consider it suspicious. Any change in elevation should be reported to your doctor, as well.

In the Valley of the Sun, we appreciate the dry heat and our ability to withstand it. But sometimes people overestimate their ability to tolerate it. Signs of dehydration include headaches, dizziness, nausea and weakness. Excessive sweating, faintness, muscle cramps and a rapid or weak pulse indicate that you have moved beyond dehydration to heat exhaustion. These symptoms may occur while you are in the sun, or they can develop days after heat exposure.

Be aware of these symptoms because, if left untreated, heat exhaustion can lead to heatstroke, which is a life-threatening condition. If you think you are experiencing heat exhaustion, stop all activity and move to a cooler place. Drink cool water and electrolyte drinks. Always seek medical attention if your symptoms get worse or if you are unable to cool your body down.

Dr. Alan Christianson of Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Ariz., wrote a great article on staying hydrated. In it, he points out that thirst is not a good indicator of your hydration. You are already dehydrated by the time your body signals that you are thirsty. If you are outside in the sun, make sure you are getting 22 to 28 ounces of water with electrolytes. This will help prevent the headaches and nausea that come with dehydration.

In addition to staying well-hydrated, try to stay indoors between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. This is when the sun is at its highest point in the sky and its rays are the most intense. Remember, if you have suffered from heatstroke or heat exhaustion in the past, you are more likely to experience it again. It is better to plan your outdoor activities early in the morning or later in the afternoon.

Enjoy the sunny Arizona weather, but beware of the dangers. Avoid overexposure to the sun, be able to recognize signs of heat exhaustion and stay hydrated. Summer is a time for fun in the sun, not a trip to the emergency room.


Ann Lovick, N.M.D, is in practice at Integrative Health in Scottsdale, Ariz. 480-657-0003 or www.integrativehealthcare.com.

Reprinted from AZNetNews, Volume 30, Number 3, June/July 2011.

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