When Brayden was 3 years old, a baby sitter let him stay in the wading pool longer than he should and he got a blistering sunburn.
She didn't worry about it, she said, because "kids always gets sunburns; it's the only way to build a base for a tan."It's also the best way to build a base for skin cancer as an adult. According to the National Institute of Health, 60 percent to 80 percent of a person's lifetime exposure to the sun occurs before adulthood is reached. And a single blistering sunburn as a child doubles the chances of skin cancer as an adult.
Dr. Leland Chick, a plastic surgeon at the Salt Lake Regional Medical Center, is very familiar with the skin damage wrought by too much exposure to the sun. And as families celebrate fair weather by heading outdoors, he cringes.
"At our altitude, and the amount of sunlight we have here, it's critically important to use sunblocks and to recognize that they have their limitations," Chick said.
Sunlight has two kinds of ultraviolet rays: UVB (think "burning") and UVA (as in "aging"). Sun blocks do a good job of keeping out the UVB rays, if they're reapplied frequently and thickly and have a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15. But sun blocks don't do as well with UVA rays.
The effects of the sun's rays will show up later - maybe even decades later - in the form of more rapid aging and possibly one of the three kinds of skin cancer: basal cell, squamous cell and melanoma. Both types of rays can cause cancer.
Basal cell, which is "incredibly common in the Southwest," is a locally invasive cancer that seldom metastasizes. But it can spread locally, even eating into cartilage and bone, Chick said. Squamous cell cancer is also very common and has the potential to metastasize and even become lethal. That type of cancer can cause "fairly large ulcerations and significant local problems."
Both start off as flakey, reddish lesions that don't go away. Melanomas are pigmented lesions - often moles - that have "definite ability" to change and invade and kill. While it can be linked to sun exposure, it also has genetic and other contributors, so that "it can occur where the sun never goes."
The tops of ears and tips of the nose are particularly vulnerable to sun rays. Chick said he operates to remove cancers in those areas two or three times a week. "And the people are very young. It's not a disease of the elderly - they're in their 30s and 40s."
In spite of what they see every day at work, dermatologists, plastic surgeons and general practitioners know that the lure of a bronzed body will keep people working on tans. And they recognize that there is a hint of protection in a light tan.
"Some tanning is protective of the skin in terms of sun blocking - a small amount of it. If you're going to do it (tan) and it's early, start off slow and get a lighter tan," Chick warns. "Then sort of maintain it at that point. When you tan, use a sun-block with at least an SPF of 8 or so. And I strongly urge you to use hats with brims when you're doing things like golfing, fishing, even gardening."
No one has figured out how to turn back the clock and undo that devastating burn received on the beach as a child - before sun safety was talked about a lot. Past exposure is history. But that doesn't mean there's no treatment for some of the damage, both from a cosmetic point of view and probably in terms of preventing some of it from becoming cancer later.
A physician may prescribe Retin-A medications and even some of the fruit acid peels, in higher than over-the-counter strength. But not everyone can or should use those medications.
And they'll never replace prevention (see accompanying box) as a cure.
How to protect yourself from the sun's rays
You don't have to stay indoors all summer to protect yourself from the sun's damaging rays. Although that does work really well.
Common sense and consistency are almost as good.
- Use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. Zinc-oxide based, thicker sunscreens work best.
- Stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., when sun's rays are strongest.
- Reapply sunscreen frequently, as it dissipates with swimming or sweating.
- Remember that ultraviolet rays get through clouds. Use sunscreen on cloudy days, too.
- Wear protective, tightly woven clothing. Dark colors are better sun screens.
- Don't forget to wear a broad-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection lenses.
- Stay in the shade as much as possible.
- Teach kids "sun safety." By the time they're adults, serious damage can already be done.
- Remember that reflective surfaces like snow and water increase sun exposure.
- Check with your doctor about medications. Some, like antibiotics, antidepressants and diabetic pills (not insulin) increase photosensitivity and allow more absorption of the sun's rays - and damage.