Preventing Skin Cancer

The body's largest organ -- the skin -- is fast becoming the most vulnerable. According to the National Cancer Institute rates of the most deadly type of skin cancer, melanoma, have doubled in the past 30 years. The NCI estimates that 40 percent to 50 percent of Americans will develop one of the less lethal forms of the disease by the time they reach 65. Protecting yourself from overexposure to the sun is essential for staving off skin cancer in all its forms. But you can also set up your body to help prevent it.

Sun-protection basics bear repeating. Whether you're at the beach or going about your workday, wear sunscreen. Be especially vigilant when you're outside during peak hours, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. And don't count on your clothes to protect you. "If you can see right through the clothing, the UV rays can go right through, too," says Dr. Martin Weinstock, professor of dermatology and community health at Brown University.

If you're wearing something lightweight, apply sunscreen under your clothes. If you've never had a skin cancer screening, schedule one with your doctor or dermatologist. After that, the exam should be part of your routine annual physical. Screen your body monthly, too, using a hand mirror. Cancers can appear anywhere, even between your toes. Look for new markings or changes in the size, shape, color, or texture of existing freckles or moles-and tell your health-care provider about them immediately. Still, there's more to stopping skin cancer than just creams and screenings.

Eat to Heal and Protect
The right diet appears to help stave off sun damage and slow the spread of cancer. For instance, foods rich in antioxidants like lycopene (such as tomatoes), beta-carotene (such as carrots), and vitamin C (such as broccoli) can reduce inflammation. Chronic inflammation has been linked to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer. In laboratory tests, resveratrol, a powerful anti-inflammatory compound found in the skins of grapes and berries, appears to go a step further by keeping certain sun-related cancer cells from proliferating and pushing some cancer cells to self-destruct.

Spice It Up
Many herbs and spices, including ginger, garlic, onion, turmeric, and rosemary, have strong anti-inflammatory properties. Research published in the medical journal Cancer showed that curcumin, the active ingredient in turmeric and curry powder, blocks a key pathway needed for the development of melanoma. If you don't eat turmeric, try supplementing with 200 mg of curcumin per day.

Think Green
Green tea, one of the world's most widely consumed beverages, is also celebrated for its antioxidant effects. The active compounds, called polyphenols, can help prevent UV radiation-induced skin cancer in animals when ingested and may help prevent it in humans, according to a study published in the Journal of Nutrition. Other research suggests similar benefits when green-tea extracts are applied topically.

Be Sunscreen Savvy
UVA rays are less likely to cause sunburn, but they penetrate the skin more deeply and can cause melanoma. They are also thought to compound the damage of UVB rays. UVB rays, largely responsible for sunburns, are considered the main cause of the two non-melanoma types of skin cancer, called basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma.

Blocking Basics
There are two types of sun protectors: physical and chemical. Physical blocks, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, work by reflecting both UVA and UVB rays. Chemical blocks work by absorbing UV rays that hit the skin. No single chemical ingredient blocks the entire UV spectrum; the words "broad spectrum protection" on a bottle indicate that multiple ingredients are used.

Chemical Controversy
Some experts caution against using chemical sunblocks because their active ingredients are absorbed by the skin. Although there are no conclusive studies, there's concern that some chemicals, such as benzophone-3 and oxybenzone, may have harmful effects in the body. There's also concern that high levels of methylparaben (a petroleum-based preservative used in many sunscreens) may be harmful, too.

Plant-Based Ingredients
Some sunscreens include natural substances, such as green tea and grape-seed oil. Although these plant-based ingredients aren't a substitute for physical or chemical sunblock, they are rich in antioxidants and may help protect against sun-related damage.

Know Your Numbers
The SPF (sun protection factor) is frequently misunderstood. Let's say you get a burn in 20 minutes. When applied properly, an SPF 15 sunscreen means it will take up to 15 times longer to burn, or about 5 hours. However, the SPF does not increase proportionally: An SPF 15 blocks 93 percent of the sun's burning rays; an SPF 30 blocks just 4 percent more. (If you use higher than an SPF 30, the extra protection is minimal.)

Don't Skimp
SPF 30 is standard, says Dr. John Epstein, clinical professor of dermatology at the University of California at San Francisco. Use a half-dollar-size dollop for your face and a palmful for your body. For best absorption, apply sunscreen 20 minutes before leaving the house, and reapply it frequently, especially after towel-drying.

Vitamin D Connection
Unlike with lung cancer, for instance, we can't avoid the main source of skin cancer entirely -- nor would we want to. Sun exposure is the body's principal way of making vitamin D. A shortfall of D, says Dr. Andrew Weil, may contribute not only to poor bone health but also to various cancers, multiple sclerosis, and other chronic conditions.

Sunlight is also key to our emotional well-being. Exposure boosts the brain's quantities of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, which is believed to protect against depression. And sunlight, especially during those short, dark winter days, helps reverse another type of depression called seasonal affective disorder. Nevertheless, we should be very strategic about how and when we catch the sun's rays. To get the health benefits without increasing skin cancer risk, experts recommend 10 to 15 minutes of sunshine (without putting on sunscreen) a few times a week.

Text by Jennifer Pirtle

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