The skin is the largest organ of the body and it has numerous important functions. It’s resistant outer surface (epidermis) keeps bacteria and toxins from entering our body, while also preventing moisture from within our body from escaping. It is also a durable and flexible structure that offers protection for our delicate internal organs from solar radiation, abrasion and other traumas. Although scientists have spent millions of dollars trying, they have yet to produce any synthetic material as versatile and effective as our skin!
Our skin is also crucial because it is a tethering point for the millions of sensory nerve endings that work to warn us of excessive heat, cold, or other dangers. Additionally, it is essential to the temperature regulation system of the body. The dilation or constriction of capillary blood vessels in the skin allow the body to shed or retain heat.
Finally, skin cells contain a chemical that turns into Vitamin D when exposed to the UVB rays found in sunlight. Physicians have long understood that Vitamin D is needed to maintain strong bones. More recently, we have learned that Vitamin D can also reduce the risk of stroke, heart attack, muscle weakness, chronic skin disorders, and even certain cancers.
The skin is not perfect though; like all superheroes, it has a weakness. It can tolerate perfumes, tattoos, chemical-laden lotions, dramatic temperature fluctuations, drought, and the ravages of time. It will stretch and contract, it will even heal itself when cut. However, it is vulnerable to the power of sunlight.
How can we best safeguard this vital part of our body? Rather than wasting our time and money seeking out the finest soaps and lotions, we can learn the simple ways to manage our relationship with the sun. Excessive sun exposure, even without sunburn, is the main cause of skin cancer.
This is because the sun emits two types of damaging energy, commonly referred to as UVA and UVB rays. UVB rays are the rays that cause painful sunburns, and thus are the target of the majority of sunscreens. The “SPF” rating of a sunscreen refers only to the level of protection from UVB rays. Yet both UVA and UVB exposure can cause skin cancer, so it is vitally important to be protected from each. Clothing that is tightly woven and reflective diverts these dangerous rays, as do hats, and sunglasses. And there are some sunscreen products that block UVA as well as UVB! We should look specifically for products that contain titanium dioxide, zinc or avobenzone as active ingredients.
Perhaps the simplest way to avoid sun damage is to avoid being in the sun when it’s rays are strongest. For most of us, that is during the months of April through October, between 10am and 4pm. A simple rule of thumb is to look at one’s shadow–if it is shorter than you, the risk of dangerous UV exposure is significant.
Please keep in mind that if traveling on vacation to higher altitudes, or to locations closer to the Earth’s equator, sun exposure can be dangerous year-round. Unknowing New England skiers traveling to higher elevation mountains out west or in Europe can experience excruciating sunburns from being outside even on a cold winter day!
Tanning beds are to be completely avoided.
If someone does develop skin cancer here are some things to know. Most skin cancers remain local diseases Examples of these include squamous cell cancer and basal cell cancer. While not pleasant to have, if caught early they are treatable by excision and typically cured. Other skin cancers can become deadly. These are melanomas and are named after the skin’s pigment, melanin. Melanoma skin cancer starts local but may travel (“metastasize”) to other parts of the body. It can require dramatic treatment and can be fatal despite best efforts. Researchers are working hard to find a cure for melanoma but have not discovered it yet, so prevention remains the primary goal.
While it is occasionally difficult to tell a skin cancer from a normal freckle or mole, there usually are predictable signs. Doctors judge skin spots using the “ABCDE” method:
A= Appearance. A spot that appears symmetrical is less likely to be cancerous than one that is asymmetric or uneven. If you draw a line through the middle of the freckle and confirm that one side appears exactly like the other, that is a good sign.
B=Border. A sharp border between the mole and surrounding skin is much less worrisome than if the pigmented spot seems to blend into or send tendrils out into the nearby tissue.
C= Color. An even, light-to-medium brown color, termed “cafe au lait” (that is “coffee with milk” for you non-French speakers), is rarely worrisome. But spots with a mix of colors, or that are all black, blue or purple, need to be checked out without delay.
D=Diameter. Any lesion with a diameter greater than ¼ inch (6 mm) is of concern and should be examined by a doctor.
E= Evolving. If a freckle or mole starts to evolve or change, it could be a warning sign of cancer, and must be brought to the attention of a physician without delay.
Indeed, the sun is magnificent, the giver of life, the symbol of hope and happiness. Unfortunately, we all need to understand the sun’s dangers as well, especially as it relates to our skin. With the few simple precautions discussed above, we can protect ourselves, and increase our chances of more healthy years to bask in its wondrous warmth.