Odds are we all know someone who has been affected by skin cancer. More than 1 million Americans are diagnosed with it each year, according to the American Cancer Society, including almost 60,000 people with melanoma — the most serious type.
To avoid becoming one of these statistics, it’s important to know how to stay safe in the sun and what to look for when purchasing sunscreen. Many people, in fact, know the basic facts about the sun and skin care, but simply are not applying them, says Gene Farrug, onsite family nurse practitioner at BCBSNC.
“There’s nothing wrong with some sun exposure, but you have to use sunscreen and cover up,” he says.
Farrug says there are great skin products out there, and in general, women are very aware. He hopes more men start taking daily sunscreens and lotions more seriously. He suggests this three-step process while you’re outside to help limit your exposure:
• Spend 15 minutes in the sun (after applying sunscreen, of course).
• Then, spend an hour in the shade.
• Re-apply sunscreen before going back in the sun.
And when it comes to protection, you may have heard this before, but Farrug says it’s worth repeating:
• Know your family history: Genetics play a big role in how much natural protection you may or may not have.
• Cover up: Wear sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and protective clothing.
• Avoid the sun when it is strongest – between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
• Children under six months should avoid the sun completely.
• Tanning beds? Forget it!
Now that you know sun safety basics, what about the safety of what you slather on skin? This is a matter of personal preference, but the Environmental Working Group suggests avoiding the following ingredients found in some sunscreens:
• Vitamin A: Government data shows that tumors and lesions develop sooner on skin coated with creams containing vitamin A, also called retinyl palmitate or retinol.
• Oxybenzone: This is a synthetic estrogen that penetrates the skin and can disrupt the hormone system. Instead, look for products with zinc oxide, 3 percent avobenzone or Mexoryl SX.
• Insect repellent: Buy it separately and apply it first.
• The Environmental Working Group also recommends not using spray sunscreen, as it can cloud the air with tiny particles that may not be safe to breathe.
No Joking Matter
At BCBSNC we recently asked employees to share their own stories to promote healthy sun habits. Bill Brashear, a senior data analyst, recalled a 1,000-mile trip canoeing down the Mississippi River when he was a brave, invincible 24-year-old. What else could have pushed his skin cells to the point of being so angry with him now?
But Brashear knows better than to blame his scores of skin cancer surgeries solely on one trip.
“My wife says I am pigmentally challenged,” he jokes.
Truth be told, it’s no joke. Brashear has had several elements working against him his whole life. He has very light skin, worked on a farm in his youth, didn’t take sunscreen too seriously, and of course, took that long trip down the Mississippi. With a family history of skin cancer, the inevitable happened.
“The first time I was scared because it’s the word cancer,” he says.
Over the years, he has had more than 100 basal and squamous cell cancers removed. Despite always wearing sunscreen, hats and protective clothing, he visits the dermatologist at least twice a year for biopsies and at least twice a year for skin cancer removals. In retrospect, his advice?
“Be careful, enjoy life and wear sunscreen,” says Bill.
Gene Farrug is board certified as a Family Nurse Practitioner (FNP-BC). He completed nurse practitioner training at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He has been active in the health care field for 17 years, including service as a clinician and clinical instructor in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC-CH from 2005 to 2010 and serving in a private primary care practice from 2010 to 2012. Gene joined Take Care Health Systems, A Walgreens health and wellness company, in 2012.