The Museum’s Health Sciences Department is partnering with the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus to publish a monthly series on the Museum blog called “Know Health”. The articles focus on current health topics selected by CU’s medical and graduate students in order to provide both English and Spanish speaking communities with current, accurate information. The posts in the “Know Health” series are edited versions of articles that first appeared in Contrapoder magazine. Thank you to the students at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for bringing these stories to life.
(aka Dr. Nicole Garneau, chair and curator, Health Sciences Department)
Be Kind to Your Skin When Having Fun in the Sun
By Guest Author, Merlin Ariefdjohan
Merlin Ariefdjohan is a student in the School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
There are organs keeping us alive, such as the brain, heart and others. However, not all of our organs are inside the body. In fact, the largest organ is worn on the outside - the skin. An adult of average weight and height carries approximately 8 pounds (3.6 kg) of skin, which covers a total area of approximately 22 square feet (2 m2). The skin is more than just a waterproof covering on our body. It is the first line of defense against microbes and chemicals, a sensor for detecting pain and texture, and a thermostat that regulates body temperature. The skin can do all these things effectively only when it is healthy. Thus, it is important to keep our skin in the best shape possible.
One of the most harmful elements to the skin is ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. We need some amount of UV to produce vitamin D and for bone health, but prolonged or excessive exposure to UV rays damages the skin. An increased incidence of skin cancer worldwide is strongly related to increasing popularity of outdoor and recreational exposures, such as sunbathing and using indoor tanning booths. UV damage due to these activities is mostly avoidable. The risk for getting skin cancer can be minimized by applying prevention measures.
The most effective way to protect the skin from UV rays is to avoid exposure altogether. UV radiation is the strongest between 10 am to 2 pm (depending on season, cloud cover, and latitude). It is advisable to limit sun exposure during this time as much as possible. "Watch your shadow - short shadow, seek shade" has become a mantra for skin care advocated by the World Health Organization. Another way to protect the skin from UV rays is to apply broad-spectrum sunscreen lotions repeatedly throughout the day. Sun-protective clothing made with fabrics that are specifically coated with UV blocking materials can also be effective in repelling up to 99% of incoming UV radiation. However, these approaches may not be feasible especially for individuals who work outdoors and for those who find these items to be costly.
A cheaper and more practical solution is to choose your clothing wisely when being in the sun. Wear a wide-brimmed hat or use an umbrella to protect your head and face from sun exposure. Tying a bandanna or scarf around the neck minimizes exposure and absorbs perspiration for better comfort. Dark colored long sleeved shirts or long pants with tightly woven fabric can also provide some protection against UV radiation. The easiest way to test how well a fabric can protect your skin is to hold it up to the light. If you can see through it, then UV radiation can penetrate it and get to your skin. A combination of these approaches would work well. For example, you can apply sunscreen lotions on area of the skin that is not covered by clothing for better protection against UV radiation. Also, remember to wear sunglasses when being in the sun because UV rays can also damage the eyes resulting in cataract.
Some skin lotions containing Retin-A and certain medications (antibiotics, antidepressants, diabetes drugs) make your skin more sensitive to the sun causing it to burn quickly. It is best to ask your doctor on how to protect your skin from the sun if you use any of these. Also, consult your doctor if you notice any mark or mole that is changing shape, size, color, or bleeding. This may be skin cancer, which is often treatable when detected early.
The proverb "prevention is better than cure" truly applies when it comes to reducing the risk of skin cancer. You can certainly have your share of fun in the sun, but do remember to take precautions from being overexposed to UV radiation!