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The American Cancer Society

"Don't Fry Day" Reminds Us To Take Care Of Our Skin Since It's The Only One We Get

by Dr. Len May 22, 2014

"Don't Fry Day," which we "celebrate" every year on the Friday before Memorial Day is an annual reminder to be good to the skin you're in. It's the only one you get. Wear it out or damage it and you don't get to replace it, like we do with heart valves, knees, hips, and so on.

This year Don't Fry Day is even more personal to me. After hounding all of you to be careful in the sun, I got a very personal reminder this past year of why that's important: two surgeries and two scars from removing skin cancers. One of those scars is pretty visible and a daily reminder of my own past unwise sun behavior. Like many folks, I'm glad the cancer is gone. But I also wish it hadn't been there in the first place.

The reality is that my generation had very little knowledge and very few options when it came to avoiding the dangers of too much sun exposure. We went outdoors, we went to the beach, we didn't have sunscreen, and we just lay there and took it. We thought we looked good. If we worked outdoors--like I did when I was in high school and college--we took our sunburn "lumps" early in the season then "built" a tan over the rest of the summer.

The rewards for our behavior? It certainly wasn't better health. We now have aging skin, with sunspots, wrinkles, and cancers to show for our efforts. And, unfortunately, we have also lost many friends, family, and others to serious skin cancers, such as melanoma.

And don't let anyone tell you, "don't worry; skin cancers are easy to treat." Yes, fortunately, most are. But that is little comfort to the many people, and I now count myself among them, who have had to undergo extensive surgery for their skin cancer, learning the hard way that sometimes it's anything but simple. It can sometimes be difficult or even impossible to remove completely and it can leave serious, life altering visible defects.

Dismiss the myth that tanning is a sign of health. It is not. It is a sign of damage. It is how your skin says "I am in trouble. I don't want more of these rays penetrating my body." Meanwhile, unbeknownst to you, the genes in your skin cells are undergoing changes to their DNA structure that may lead to cancer. That is not a good thing.

So what should you do?

For a complete list you can go to our website and find information on how to be safe in the sun. First and foremost, for the average person, avoid the sun at peak hours. If you do get sun exposure, protect yourself. "Slip, Slop, Slap, and Wrap" is a good phrase to remember: slip on a UV protective shirt, slop on the sunscreen, slap on a wide brimmed hat and wrap on UV protective sunglasses. When you use sunscreen, use lots of it, and frequently. Use a broad spectrum sunscreen that blocks UVA and UVB rays and is at least SPF 30 (SPF 15 works, but most people don't use enough of it or use it properly. SPF 30 adds some extra margin to correct for those mistakes). Check to see that it has protection if you go into the water or sweat--especially if you play outdoor sports. And read how often the label says you should reapply it when you are in the sun.

The sad reality is that most people don't use sunscreen properly: they don't use enough, they don't reapply it regularly, and they don't check the label to see if it protects against water and sweat. But even worse some studies suggest that they rely on it too much as a sun safety measure, forgetting (or ignoring) the common sense protection rules noted above. If you do forget those rules, and think sunscreen is the only protection you need, you may be in for a very nasty surprise.

So once again, I implore you to enjoy yourself but be sun safe. I am living proof of what happened when we didn't know what we should do about sun safety and didn't have the tools to do it. Today you have the knowledge and the tools to protect yourself from the damaging effects of sun exposure. You no longer have an excuse.

Your skin will thank you. You are not a hot dog or a piece of steak. You don't want to be grilled (burned), and you don't want to be braised (tanned). You want to be comfortable and you want to be safe.

Remember: you can buy another steak, but your skin? Like I said, the one you are in is the only one you get. Take care of it and help it last a lifetime!

 

About Dr. Len

Dr. Len

J. Leonard Lichtenfeld, MD, MACP - Dr. Lichtenfeld is Deputy Chief Medical Officer for the national office of the American Cancer Society.

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