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Lets Talk About Our Skin: Sun Protection and Raising Awareness

While in some countries this time of the year you have a cold weather, cloudy days filled with rain or snow, those kind of days you wish you could stay warm in bed instead of going to work or school, in other parts of the world you may find a clear blue sky, sunny days, and a great excuse to wear your favorite shorts with a tank top and sandals. Wherever you may be at, whether its cold or hot outside, everyday is important to take care of your skin and protect it against the sun. I know you’ve probably have heard this way too many times, but have you actually thought about it?

A few years ago, well, know that I think about it, almost 10 years ago (wow, time does go by so quickly!) I thought that I was invincible. I would listen to my parents telling me to wear sunblock before going outside, but the truth is I thought the most I would get if I didn’t protect myself was a bad sunburn. Not that I wasn’t aware of skin cancer, I just never thought I would get it or at least no one close to me, and yes, this is no excuse, but I hate that sunblock lotion is quite sticky and it feels like it takes forever to get absorbed. 10 years ago, a family member was diagnosed with melanoma. From that point on, my view about protection against the sun changed. 

What do you do to protect yourself from the sun? I don’t really like it when people tell me “don’t go outside, don’t go to the beach or if you do go to the beach, don’t go tanning”. Let’s get real, the probability of sun exposure is too high on daily basis, and yes, even higher if you go to the beach, but you still are going to get some degree of sun exposure wherever you might be at, and yet, most people won’t stop doing their daily activities because of it. Instead of prohibiting activities, we should teach prevention and protection methods that can be applied in our day to day, and most importantly people should be educated. They should learn about the risks, the consequences, about the why of everything. As Nelson Mandela said: “Education is the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. Thus, I’ll try to explain two of the most common consequences of sun exposure and how to prevent them.

Freckles and that caramel toned tan…

I have red hair, light skin and, like most redheads, freckles on my face, on my shoulders, and on my chest… pretty much on all sun exposed areas. Some people like freckles, they think they look cute. Others don’t like them, my mom has tried to get me to use one of her facial lotions that helps clear the skin from freckles, but a few people, like me, don’t really pay much attention to them. I used to not care about my freckles until I was in med school. 

Freckles, or ephelides, are small, brown, circular shaped, flat marks or patches located on sun exposed areas of skin (face, neck , shoulders, arms, chest). During summertime they may darken and become more noticeable, but during wintertime they tend to fade or lighten up. They are usually found on fair skin people, blonds and redheads most frequently. 

How do you get them? Well, freckles are our body’s reaction to sun exposure. Once ultraviolet rays come in contact with the skin, it stimulates specialized cells in the epidermis, melanocytes. These melanocytes then increase their production of melanin, a pigment that gives the color of our skin. Usually the melanin is spread across the skin, into other skin cells called keratinocytes, which results in that caramel tone tan that we all love to have when going to the beach. However, other times the melanin is accumulated in certain areas of the skin, forming freckles. 

Why is this important? This pigment, the melanin, is produced with the purpose of reducing the damage that UV rays generate. Think of it this way: every time you go tanning, sun exposure produces lesions to your body. Yet, your body fights this back and tries to protect you. It tries to reduce these lesions by producing that tan, those freckles, that people actually enjoy. Then, the more you get tanned, the more freckles you have, the higher the probability of getting harmed by sun rays. As the World Health Organization states: “any colour change from our natural skin colour is a sign of damage and offers little protection against further damage.”

(This image was taken from : "Sun Protection: A Primary Teaching Resourcen." WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data (2003): n. pag. WHO Library. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.)

When I learned how freckles and suntan were produced, I actually felt guilty. All this time I have been exposing myself to harm, while my body has been working hard to protect me. However, as shocking or scary this might make you feel, will you say no the next time you have the opportunity to travel to an exotic island, go surfing, or just to the beach? Some people will answer yes, that they wouldn’t go, but others, the majority, will think the opposite. It amazed me how my family member even after being diagnosed with skin cancer, even after overcoming this event, he wanted to be able to go to the beach with his friends. Yet, I couldn’t blame him for wanting to have a normal life back. Then, the question is, what can you do in this situation? Acceptance is the key. You can’t expect people to hide from the sun, but you can guide them, modify their lifestyle choices, so that each time they are outside, the risks are less. 

These are the recommendations:

  • Wear sunscreen lotion everyday… yes, everyday. Nowadays, thankfully, sun protection awareness has increased and products with UVA and UVB protection are available to everyone. As a consequence, lotions are no longer sticky or smelly, but more adapted to what the consumer wants and likes. Products may vary from lip balm with SPF, CC creams, makeup foundations, to body lotions with a touch of sunblock. Make sure you protect all sun exposed areas. Apply any product with a minimum of SPF 15 20 minutes before going outside (it needs time to be absorbed), and then reapply every 2-3 hours later and/or after getting out of a swimming pool.
  • Wear hats during the summer and sunglasses while driving during the day, or when going outside.
  • Avoid direct sunlight from 10 am to 4 pm… Seek shade! During this period of time, the sun rays are the strongest because the sun is at its highest point. Remember that the longer you are exposed to the sunlight, the higher the risks of lesions. Therefore, avoid tanning during these hours. If your friends want to go tanning and you know better than doing this, but you don’t want to miss the fun of spending time with your friends, you can always use protective clothing, sit under the shade of an umbrella, and make sure you have sunscreen on all areas of your body that will be exposed to the sun.
  • Avoid sunlamps and sunbeds. These methods of sun tanning use UV radiation that can damage your skin.
  • Maintain a routinely check up with your dermatologist. After observing my family member’s experience with skin cancer, I’ve realized that it is important to go to the doctor even if your aren’t sick, but just for a check up. This way, you have an up to date of your body’s health state and if there is anything wrong with it, it will be discovered at an early stage. This recommendation is more important to those persons with higher risk: fair skin people, redheads and blonds, and people with family members who have had skin cancer. 
  • Last, but no least, create consciousness about the importance of protecting your skin. As this quote states: “…Change comes from within, not from the outside”.  You, and only you, are responsible for your life choices. No matter how many times people are going to tell you do this or do that, you have the changing force. Help spread the word and inform others as well.

Finally, don’t stop here. If you want to learn more about protecting yourself from the sun, here are some useful websites:

"Brown Spots and Freckles." DermNet NZ. New Zealand Dermatological Society Incorporated, 2008. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.
"Sun Protection: A Primary Teaching Resourcen." WHO Library Cataloguing-in-Publication Data (2003): n. pag. WHO Library. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

“Protecting Yourself From Sun Exposure.” Nosh Fast Facts. Center for Disease Control and Prevention. 2010. Web. 15 Dec. 2014.

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