If there's one thing we know now that we didn't know then, it is this: the days of worshipping the sun with abandon are over.
Sure, we're still drawn to the chance to bask in that irresistible glow—after all, as Wisconsinites, we've endured a long, harsh winter. And the good news is that we can still bask, as long as we take care to protect ourselves from the damaging aspects of exposure to the sun.
In other words, we need to be careful about it, more careful than we have been in the past. Because a dose of precaution and some simple preventive measures can mean the difference between premature aging (at best) or disfiguration and even death from cancer. Yes, protecting yourself from the damage the sun can do to your skin is that important: one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in his or her lifetime and, on average, there's a death from melanoma in this country every hour.
"Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States," says Dr. Michael Pomroy of the Dermatology Clinic at Meriter-UnityPoint Health. "But it's also one of the most preventable."
That's good news. And so is this: We can still look and feel our best in these summer months, which is probably what all that baby oil and tinfoil was really about, anyway.
"Although we all now know the dangers of excessive sun and UV exposure, Wisconsinites understandably find it very hard to resist getting a lot of sun exposure during the summer months, and many believe a little tan looks good and ‘healthy' on pretty much anyone," says Dr. Richard Parfitt of AestheticA Skin Health Center. "Yet doing everything we can to block every last tan-producing ray of UV light possible is going to leave us looking like we're photophobic cave-dwellers who avoid outdoor physical activity. So, how do we strike a balance between healthy skin and looking healthy?"
Happily, there are plenty of ways to find that balance.
The three most common types of skin cancer are melanoma, basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. Basal and squamous make up the vast majority of cases—basal cell carcinomas account for 2.8 million cases in the U.S. each year—and they also tend to be disfiguring rather than fatal. But all three are deadly if left untreated, so monthly self-checks and regular doctor visits are a critical component of skin cancer prevention. Doctors say that people sometimes dismiss or mistake lesions and pre-cancerous patches for scabs, freckles or run-of-the-mill moles. While these might be easy mistakes to make, they are also costly.
"The sun causes skin to age faster, even without cancer on it. If you ignore these changes and they do develop into cancer, the longer you leave it alone, the bigger that cancer is," says Dr. Ramzi Shehadi of Dean Clinic-Aesthetic Surgery Center. "If it's basal cell or squamous cell, these patients come in with big lesions on their faces and when we remove them, there are big holes. Some patients end up missing their entire nose or lip, forehead or cheek or eyelid. We reconstruct it, but the bigger the hole, the more difficult the process is."
Melanoma, which accounts for nearly ten thousand American deaths each year (and that figure is on the rise), is by far the deadliest. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, if it reaches the lymph nodes, the current five-year survival rate for this disease is only sixty-two percent. Once it reaches distant organs, that rate drops to a dismal fifteen percent. But if melanoma is caught and treated before it has the chance to spread, melanoma's survival rate can be as high as ninety-eight percent.
"If the melanoma is diagnosed late and has metastasized to other parts of the body, there is no good chemotherapy agent available," explains Shehadi. "There is no radiation treatment that can cure it. And we don't have good surgical options, once the disease has spread. So the more superficial the melanoma, the better the prognosis. That means the earlier it is detected and caught, the better for the patient."
Certain genetic factors put some people at greater risk; generally, the paler your skin, the greater your risk. The large population of people in our area who are of white, northern European ancestry, in combination with a vibrant outdoor sporting culture and farming community faced with so much sun exposure, means that Shehadi sees quite a lot of skin cancer patients. He says so many of them wait far too long to get suspicious spots checked.
"If you catch it early, your chances for cure are high," says Shehadi. "The longer you let it fester and grow and invade and destroy, the worse the outcome."
Sunscreen is a simple, effective, inexpensive way to help prevent skin cancer and premature aging. Yet a disturbing number of us still resist its regular or proper use. According to the American Academy of Dermatology in 2010, daily sunscreen use cut the incidence of melanoma—the deadliest form of skin cancer—in half.
"Some people really hate sunscreen, but today's formulas have smaller particles and are much more aesthetically pleasing than ever before," says Meriter's Pomroy. "A lot of people are under-using sunscreen. In order to benefit from the SPF noted on the bottle, you have to apply the recommended amount."
Pomroy suggests slathering on at least one ounce (picture a shot glass) of broad spectrum, water-resistant, SPF30 or greater sunscreen every two hours. Do this even when it's a cloudy day—or, perhaps, especially when it's a cloudy day; eighty percent of harmful UV rays still make it through the cloud cover. In addition, avoid the sun during peak hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. And use hats, sunglasses and protective clothing—and don't forget about exposed spots such as ears and hands. Take sunburns seriously, especially for kids; even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence may double a person's chance of developing melanoma later in life.
"You'll still get your Vitamin D," says Pomroy, noting that an increased awareness of the benefits of Vitamin D has caused some people to become more lax about sun exposure. "With the incidence of skin cancer in the United States [at] about one in five, we can't really justify telling people to get their Vitamin D from the sun when there are plenty of other ways to get it."
Like Shehadi, Pomroy says monthly self-checks are crucial. The more regularly you perform them, the better you'll know your body and be able to note changes if they occur.
"About half of melanomas are brand new spots and half develop within existing moles," says Pomroy. "You have to be familiar with your body."
With sun protection accounted for, there are many more ways to get skin looking and feeling its best this summer.
Beyond heart health, bone building and the dozens of other reasons we really should work out every day, exercise brings a glow and tone to the skin that simply can't be replicated in any other way.
"It's stating the obvious that a workout can improve your body," says Sharon Baldwin, senior director of mission advancement at YMCA of Dane County. "But the good news is that exercise can also improve your skin."
Skin is the body's largest organ, and exercise can help it look and feel healthier. "When you exercise, your skin begins to produce more of its natural oils, that help it look supple and healthy," says Baldwin. She adds that exercise also tones the muscles beneath your skin for a tightened, smoother look.
Sleep is important for a number of reasons—it's also your best defense against dark under-eye circles. A slew of studies show exercise plays an important role in getting a good night's sleep. And then there's hydration.
"No one can work out if they're not properly hydrated, and it makes your skin look better, too," says Baldwin. "Conversely, if you're training without drinking enough water, you'll damage your skin pretty quickly."
How to tell if you're drinking enough? Try the hydration test by pinching the skin on the back of your hand. If it doesn't spring back fast, you're dehydrated.
Finally, exercise alone isn't enough for healthy skin. Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your diet; many of the best foods for healthy skin also promote good general health. Baldwin says the YMCA's Y5210 program daily recommendations include five servings of fruits and vegetables, limiting screen time to two hours or less, building in one hour or more of physical activity, and consuming zero sugar-sweetened drinks in your diet.
"Exercise is about a million small perks beyond burning calories, like stress management, better sleep, an overall healthy body and great skin," says Baldwin. "And they all add up to a more radiant, gorgeous you."
With warm temperatures finally here, it is time to break out the shorts and swimsuits! At Evolution Body Transformation, health and wellness practitioner Dr. Stacy Shropshire, D.C., offers two treatments in particular that may reduce the signs of aging, and tighten and tone skin to help you look and feel your best when showing off more skin this summer.
"Our Venus Freeze machine is the best thing we have for improving skin tone and regaining that youthful glow in the skin. It was the most sought-out aesthetic service in the United States last year," says Shropshire. "And, despite the name, it's not a cold therapy at all. It's actually very warm and comfortable."
A licensed therapist uses the Venus Freeze to stimulate collagen by treating targeted areas on the body—particularly the stomach, thighs, backside and other areas where collagen gathers, as well as on the face and neck to diminish wrinkles and regain youthful radiance. The treatment takes between thirty and forty-five minutes; usually eight to ten sessions spaced once per week are recommended. Best of all, there is no pain or downtime, and there are no activity restrictions.
"You will be a little pink and flushed for about thirty minutes after the treatment," says Shropshire. "Usually by the fourth procedure, people really see a difference. Collagen takes time to rebuild in the skin, so you will continue to see improvements for up to six months after your sessions."
Another very popular service to tighten skin is the M'lis body wrap. This is a wrap to improve skin tone and elasticity, as well as reduce the appearance of cellulite.
"We put on this really great minty-smelling exfoliate and buff the skin, then add a thick layer of this cinnamon-scented cream. Then we wrap you in cellophane and let you rest on our cozy warm table in our spa-like room," says Shropshire. "You see inch loss, it helps with cellulite, and it's great for body contouring. Your skin just feels amazing for days."
We all want to look like we feel healthy and happy, but arguably the best way to do that is, well, to actually be healthy and happy. And if we're obsessive about both protection and how we look, we might be missing the point of a carefree, relaxing summer.
"I see avoiding a tan being like avoiding red meat. We know that too much red meat is not healthy for you, but with humans being naturally omnivorous, it's probably healthy to eat some red meat occasionally, and it sure adds to quality of life for most of us," says Parfitt. "Same with the sun. Too much is definitely bad, but getting some is actually healthy and is certainly natural."
Parfitt also, as always, cautions us against brand new treatments or products that haven't yet been market- or time-tested, particularly if they're expensive. He recommends waiting "until the initial smoke surrounding the initial hype clears." Until then, go with what's proven.
"What's the rush?" he says. "In the meantime, put your sunscreen on and get outdoors and have fun and exercise this summer. Just don't avoid the sun too much."
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