Yesterday when I was at the gym, I couldn't help but notice a fair-skinned teenage girl who reminded me somewhat of my younger self. Except her skin was smooth and flawless. I'll bet she never sits in the sun, I thought. She won't wrinkle early, that's for sure. And her skin, no doubt, will remain without blotches, wrinkles and freckles for a long, long time.
When I think back to the things I did as a teenager and beyond, I have one big regret. And I'm reminded of it every time I look in the mirror.
That's when I see the spots, blotches and wrinkling—things I didn't know about (or necessarily care about, for that matter) when I used to bake outside in the sun for hours and hours. The result? Many trips to the dermatologist over the years, many suspicious growths, many biopsies.
And it's about this time each year, with Memorial Day weekend approaching, that I wish I knew then what I know now.
If I could have a talk with my younger self, here's what I'd tell her:
- Everyone, regardless of age or skin type, needs to wear sunscreen when they can't avoid sun exposure.
- Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States; each year there are more new cases of it than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined.
- One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in the course of a lifetime.
- Even if you work inside, you can be exposed to ultraviolet radiation for brief periods throughout the day. UVA rays are not blocked by most windows.
- UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply, are the ones associated with aging. They also exacerbate the carcinogenic effects of the UVB rays and can be responsible for skin cancer on their own (it was previously thought that UVB rays were the main culprit).
- Even on cloudy or cold days, you need sunscreen. Up to 40 percent of the sun's damaging rays can reach the earth on a completely cloudy day.
It's never too late to learn. Here's what I want to tell myself (and all of you) today:
Don't think that if you've overdone it with the sun when you were a kid, you can't do anything about it now. A recent study showed that we get less than 25 percent of our total sun exposure by the time we're 18.
Most of us are using way too little sunscreen. You need to apply 1 ounce, which is equivalent to about a full shot glass. Scary fact: studies show that most people apply much less than that amount, meaning that you are getting much less SPF protection than you think.
Skin checks are essential. If caught early, most skin cancer is easy to cure. Check your own skin monthly and have a trained professional do a full body exam annually (or more frequently depending on your history).
Know the warning signs:
- A skin growth that increases in size.
- A growth that looks pearly, translucent, tan, brown, black or multicolored.
- A mole, birthmark, beauty mark or any brown spot that is irregular in outline, appears after age 21, is larger than the size of a pencil eraser or changes in size, texture, color or thickness.