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Dr. Lawrence Samuels, St. Luke's Hospital

Keeping your skin protected from harmful rays

One of the most common misconceptions women have regarding their skin is that maintaining a "bronze glow" is part of a healthy routine. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whether exposure is attained in a tanning bed or on the beach, there is no such thing as a healthy or safe tan. That bronze glow is the skin's response to damage from harmful ultraviolet rays, which can cause cancer, skin discolorations, wrinkles and leathery or sagging skin over time.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The two most common types of skin cancer - basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas - can be treated if found at an early stage. However, melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, can be harder to treat, especially in young people. About 65 to 90 percent of melanomas are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (i.e. tanning beds) or sunlight.

An estimated one million Americans - 70 percent of whom are girls and women - visit a tanning salon each day. This may be a contributing factor in the rise in melanoma cases in women. Recently, the National Cancer Institute found that between 1980 and 2004 annual cases of melanoma among young women increased by 50 percent.

Women who subject themselves to exposure to the sun or UV light should follow the American Academy of Dermatology recommendations for using sunscreen. Your sunscreen should be water-resistant so it cannot be easily removed by sweating or while swimming, and it should have an SPF (sun protection factor) of 30 or higher. Having that level of protection provides broad-spectrum coverage against both UVA and UVB light. Even so-called "water-resistant" sunscreens may lose their effectiveness after 40 minutes in the water. Sunscreens rub off as well as wash off, so reapply sunscreen for continued protection.

By avoiding tanning altogether, you greatly decrease your risk of skin cancer. Regardless of whether you are an avid tanner, early detection of skin cancer is important. If you find an unusual growth on your skin that is asymmetrical, has an uneven border, is an unusual color or has a diameter larger than a pencil eraser, you should have it looked at by a doctor.

Dr. Lawrence Samuels is chief of dermatology at St. Luke's Hospital. Call 314-576-7343 or visit his Physician Referral page.

This article was published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on April 22, 2010.

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