Too Much Summer Sun Can Be Dangerous
- Categorized in: Carroll Health – Past Issues
Westminster dermatologist Dr. Lawrence Feldman warns of the time lag between sun damage and skin cancer.
When summer brings long sun-warmed days, John and Ginger Myers and their son Andrew don long-sleeved shirts, sunscreen and hats that cover their ears before heading out to work on their family farm near Westminster.
Throughout the year, Michaelle Leone applies sunscreen to any exposed skin before making her rounds as parking enforcement officer for the Westminster city police, a job that takes her outdoors five to six hours a day. In summertime, she uses sunscreen with a sun protection factor (spf) of at least 55; in winter, an spf of 15.
The Myers family and Leone, like many others who have learned about the dangers of sun-caused skin cancer, are covering up to reduce their risk. Americans have been diagnosed with more than one million cases of skin cancer a year in the last five years, and medical treatment for it costs about $1.5 billion a year. Maryland has a skin cancer rate of 29.9 per 100,000 population, higher than the average of 17.2 per 100,000 in the Middle Atlantic region. Sun exposure can also damage skin by producing wrinkles, brown spots and a leathery look.
“Anecdotally and statistically, there is no question that there is a huge increase in the incidence of skin cancer,” said Westminster dermatologist Dr. Lawrence Feldman, who has been practicing for 27 years. He listed several contributing factors: sun exposure, people living longer and latency, the time lag between sun damage and possible development of skin cancer. “If I see someone today with skin cancer, it is most likely that damage occurred in the 1970s, ’80s or ’90s,” he said.
Is wearing sunscreen a hard sell for farmers? Not at Evermore Farm, said Ginger Myers. The family benefits from the sun because it provides food for their grass-fed animals, but the damage that sun exposure can cause has been brought home to them at farm meetings.
“The older generation worked out in the sun, and you’ll see a Band-Aid on their faces where they’ve had a melanoma removed,” she said.
Melanoma, usually brown or black and resembling a mole, is less common than basal cell and squamous skin cell cancers, but far more dangerous if not caught early, according to the American Cancer Society.
In later stages, melanoma can spread, most often attacking the brain, lungs and liver. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list agricultural workers among the outdoor workers at increased risk of ultraviolet ray damage.
“We provide shade for the animals. But we forget to do it for ourselves,” said Ginger Myers. Her family tries to plan jobs like moving livestock from pasture to pasture, trimming fence rows or weeding pastures for hours when the sun is less intense.
Agricultural Extension Service agent Bryan Butler sees more Carroll farmers wearing sunblock and big hats than 15 years ago.
“I’d say there is pretty good awareness in the agricultural community,” said Butler, pointing out that farm workers must think about how long they are going to be out and what they will be doing. There is less sun exposure inside the cab of a tractor or combine. But a small vegetable producer must work on the ground from April to October, and will get more sun exposure.
Parking enforcement officer Leone, 42, of Gamber, grew up getting sunburns instead of tans. A fair-skinned blonde who loves outdoor activities like kayaking and bird watching, she learned: “If I’m going to be outside, the big floppy hat goes on.”
Leone enforces the sunscreen rule with her daughters, a 9-year-old ash blonde and a 6-year-old strawberry blonde. “It’s not a choice,” she tells them. “If you’re going to be outside, sunscreen goes on.”
Her approach is in line with what Feldman tells his patients: “Use your head. Don’t get red.” He advises patients to stay out of the sun in the middle of the day and use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater. Clothing rated with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 9 is best, but for most people, just wearing a hat and long-sleeved shirt will help provide adequate protection, he said.
Sunshine provides the health benefits of vitamin D, and the U.S. is in the midst of a vitamin D deficiency epidemic, Feldman noted. Studies have linked vitamin D deficiencies to increased rates of cancer, heart disease, osteoporosis and multiple sclerosis.
“It’s not like we want people to become hermits and live in a cave, said Feldman. “It’s taking precautions. So long as people use protective clothing and reapply sunscreen, they should be able to enjoy the outdoors.”
One alternative for people who want a summer tan glow without the lines that sunshine etches into their faces or the risk of skin cancer is a temporary spray-on or airbrushed tan.
Amanda Shanley, 35, of Sykesville, owner of TINT mobile sunless tanning, was a dedicated tanner who used tanning beds and sunshine to bronze her fair skin. A few years ago, her mother developed skin cancer. “That really changed my mind about tanning in the sun or tanning beds,” she said.
Shanley experimented with drugstore products, but found them hard to apply. When she discovered spray tanning, she also found a career. The company from which she bought equipment trained her and she opened an in-home tanning service. Her typical customer is a woman over 35 who is beginning to notice lines in her skin or may have had a skin cancer scare, she said. Male customers are often bodybuilders, she said.
At Elements of Style Salon and Day Spa, Eldersburg, airbrush technician Gerry Harrison, 22, said customers tell her the No. 1 factor in their choice of airbrush tanning is fear of skin cancer. “Cancer has touched everyone in some way,” she said, and many choose not to risk exposure in tanning beds.
Sunless tanning solutions have a reputation for making skin look orange, but Harrison said the organic and natural sunless tanning solutions she uses can provide coloration from “a nice glow to not having to wear makeup.”