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Summer Sun Safety Tips
Written by Dr. Justin Piasecki   

bottles of sunscreenWith summer fast approaching, I’m often asked about the balance between sun safety and fun. The answer, of course, is “yes.” Kidding aside, let’s first set the record straight regarding the sun. It is a myth that UV exposure is justifiable in the name of vitamin D metabolism. How much sunlight do we really need daily? The minimum direct sunshine exposure required for appropriate and healthy vitamin D metabolism is 15 minutes over the surface area of a person’s hands.

The incidence of skin cancer is on the rise, and cumulative sun exposure is the biggest risk factor. Basal and squamous cell carcinoma are now more common than all other cancers combined. They can be life threatening, but more commonly quality of life threatening: destroying and deforming if left untreated. If you have fair skin and live long enough, you are likely to get one of these cancer types.

So should we dive behind a bush every time we see the sun? As an expert in the field, I say no. Most would argue – and I agree – that we should live life to the fullest and enjoy outdoor activities. Indeed, that is where many of our fondest experiences and memories are formed. But be smart. Be proactive. Be informed. Enjoy life outdoors and be sun-sensical at the same time. That means moderation and common sense. Follow the five sun sense lessons below to enjoy outdoor living without damaging your health.

Lesson #1: No tanning beds

Tanning beds are to skin cancer what cigarettes are to lung cancer. A recent study estimated that regular use of tanning beds increased the risk of melanoma by 75 percent. Tanning beds emit radiation, with varying degrees of UVA and UVB depending on the machine. Both forms of radiation cause skin cancer and premature aging. Avoid them.

Lesson #2: Sunscreen

Put sunscreen on your body every day. Don’t forget your scalp and under your bathing suit. The best sunscreen out there is the one you will actually wear. If it is too expensive, too greasy or too fragrant, you won’t wear it. There is no evidence that one brand or product is better at preventing skin cancer than another. My recommendation is to apply an SPF of 30 or greater every day, and reapply every two to three hours if you are outdoors as UV radiation will destroy the sunscreen on your skin over time. If you get in the water, assume the sunscreen is gone from your skin and reapply. If you can’t reapply to your whole body, at least reapply to your face and hands, the areas most commonly affected by skin cancer and most cosmetically sensitive. Remember that the SPF of regular clothing is only five or six.

Are chemicals in sunscreens dangerous? Parabens, triethanolamine and PABA have all been shown in mice studies to have some adverse effects. However, the risk in humans is unclear. There is inherent risk to living. Every time we get in a car and drive to the supermarket, we could get in a fatal accident. The risk of direct and cumulative UV exposure far outweighs the unclear and very small risks associated with the use of any sunscreen. Please wear it.

Lesson #3: Early Detection

Examine your own skin every month on your birth day for an extra 10 minutes in the shower. A wound that bleeds with minimal trauma (like toweling), a wound that won't heal over the course of a few weeks, or a growing skin lesion are all signs of skin cancer. Additionally, any brown or black spot on the skin that is changing in shape, colour or size is a red flag. Change is the most sensitive indicator of something you should have checked. At least once a year, have your skin checked by a primary care doctor or dermatologist.

Lesson #4: Treat it Right

If diagnosed with skin cancer, don’t cut corners on treatment. Treat it right the first time. Be your own advocate, ask questions, and make sure you are treated by an expert in the removal of skin cancer and an expert in reconstructive surgery. As the only doc worldwide certified in skin cancer removal and board certified in both plastic surgery and facial plastic surgery, I founded Plastic Micrographic Surgery, which is a one-stop shop for both removal and any reconstructive/cosmetic needs. Make sure your doctors are trained and certified as above and you will get great care.

Lesson #5: Tan without Cancer

You can be sun safe and still look great! For a variety of reasons, our society sees pale skin as less attractive than a tan. As a board certified plastic and cosmetic surgeon, I understand and appreciate the importance of cosmetics and looking attractive, youthful and rejuvenated. But the reward has to justify the risk. Radiating your skin to look temporarily better is not worth the increased risk of cancer that prolonged and repeated intense sun exposure carries. Prior to the mid-1990s, I simply recommended living with a paler complexion. Today, there are several very effective and very safe spray tanning options on the market that do not increase the risk of cancer, and also give fantastic cosmetic results.

Dr. Justin Piasecki -

Dr Justin Piasecki, MD, received a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and his medical degree from Vanderbilt University. He completed a plastic and reconstructive surgery residency at the University of Wisconsin, and a Mohs surgery fellowship at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Piasecki is also the only member of the American College of Mohs Surgery who is board-certified by the American Board of Plastic Surgeons and the American Board of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery.