Tips and Tools: Fun in the Sun

Skin cancer: we've all heard about it, but for the 60,000 Canadians diagnosed each year with skin cancer, it's all too real. Fortunately, most of them - 95% - will be diagnosed with basal cell or squamous cell cancers, which are fairly easy to treat. But 5% will have melanoma, a more serious form.

Skin cancer is usually caused by the skin's exposure to ultraviolet rays from the sun.

The more sun you're exposed to over your lifetime, the higher your risk of developing cancer. It's estimated that up to 80% of a person's total exposure to the sun happens before 18 years of age. Because of this, it's good to teach children healthy sun habits from the start. One serious sunburn in childhood can increase future cancer risk by as much as 50%.

Babies under six months old should be kept out of the sun completely. They're too young for sunscreen, but their delicate skin can burn easily, so keep the baby in the shade and covered as much as possible.

Some people feel that if they tan well, they're protected from these harmful rays. But, while it's true that fair-haired, blue-eyed people are most prone to burning, and therefore are more susceptible to the sun's rays, even "healthy" tans are really damage control - they're your body's way of trying to protect itself from the sun. In other words, there's no such thing as a healthy tan.

The sun, however, is also very important to our health. It provides us with vitamin D (which we need for our bones), and it can lift our spirits. In fact, there's a form of depression called seasonal affective disorder (or SAD) that can happen when there's more darkness than daylight - sufferers feel "down" during the winter and much better when summer comes.

The goal is to have fun outside but stay safe at the same time. Here are some basic rules:

  • Cover up whenever possible. A longer cotton skirt, for example, might feel cooler on a hot day than a pair of shorts, and will help guard you from the sun.
  • Wear a hat. Hats keep the sun's rays off the scalp, face and back of the neck, prime areas for skin cancer. A good hat will also shelter and protect your eyes from the sun's powerful rays.
  • Use sunscreen whenever you're outside, even if the sun doesn't seem particularly strong. Damaging ultraviolet rays can penetrate through clouds, so don't take a chance. Always apply sunscreen with a minimum SPF (sun protection factor) of 15. Be sure to follow the directions closely and reapply the sunscreen on a regular basis throughout the day, especially after you've been swimming or perspiring.
  • Avoid the sun when it's at its peak. It's strongest between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m., so use that time to do activities indoors if possible.
  • If you take prescription drugs, check to see if they can make you more sensitive to the sun. If you're not sure, ask your pharmacist.

If, despite being careful, you still get burned, treat your skin as you would any other kind of burn:

  • Apply cool, wet compresses for 24 to 48 hours.
  • Don't apply skin creams within the first two days.
  • Drink a lot of water to keep from feeling dehydrated.

Really severe burns, the kind that produce blisters, are often treated in clinics with dressings. If you're not sure if your burn is severe, have it checked.

If you notice any unusual moles or marks on your skin, watch them closely. The most common skin cancers (basal and squamous cell) can look like a small, skin-coloured or red knob. Melanoma - a serious kind of skin cancer - usually begins as a mole that seems to change colour or size. You can use the following ABCD method to help decide if you should have a mole checked by a doctor:

  1. Asymmetry. The mole is not equally round.
  2. Border. The border is irregular with jagged edges, not smooth.
  3. Colour. The colour can be uneven across the mole, change colour or seem very different from the other moles on your body.
  4. Diameter. Cancerous moles are usually larger than 6 mm (the size of a pea).

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