Sun Safety: Don't Get Sidelined by Skin Cancer

Sun Safety: Don't Get Sidelined by Skin Cancer

Serious athletes try to protect their bodies. They eat right, get proper conditioning and take steps to prevent injuries. But they might not always be so disciplined about protecting their skin from the sun when they head out on the field.

That's a problem, since avoiding sunburn and practicing sun safety is the single most important step you can take to prevent skin cancer, said Suraj Venna, MD, a board-certified dermatologist and director of the Inova Melanoma and Skin Cancer CenterInova is the official hospital network and sports medicine partner of the Washington Nationals, and a leader in bringing personalized care to people throughout the Washington, D.C., metro area and beyond.

Melanoma is the most dangerous form of skin cancer -- and it's becoming a bigger problem. Melanoma rates in the United States doubled from 1982 to 2011, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. While it's still more commonly diagnosed in middle and older age, rates are also rising among young people, Venna said.

Sun Safety: Plan Ahead to Protect Your Skin

When you're out on the field day after day, you can't avoid the sun. Luckily, you can protect your skin from damage:

  • Cover up with right type of clothing: Many people believe that clothing keeps out the sun's damaging rays, according to Venna. In fact, a surprising amount of ultraviolet light can penetrate T-shirts and other clothing. "You can actually get a sunburn through a T-shirt," Venna says. Look for workout gear that has an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) built in.
  • Apply sunscreen often: Venna recommends sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 50 or more. And don't forget lip balm with SPF, he adds. Slather sunscreen on all exposed skin, and reapply every 2 hours, or every 90 minutes if you're sweating a lot. Don't wait until your nose is pink to grab your sunscreen, Venna said. "Redness is a sign of stress response in your skin. If your skin looks red, it's already getting damaged." Still, he adds, it's never too late to apply sunscreen.
  • Know your options: Physical sunscreens, which contain zinc or titanium, form a physical barrier against UV rays. They start working as soon as you apply them, but they can be thick and hard to rub in. Chemical sunscreens are easier to apply, but they have to react with your skin in order to work - a reaction that can take up to 20 minutes, Venna said. If you opt for chemical protection, put it on 20 to 30 minutes before you hit the field.
  • Keep it fresh: Toss the crusty old bottles and make sure your sunscreen hasn't expired.
  • Don't go for tan: It's a common misconception that tanning can protect skin from sunburn and sun damage. Think again, Venna said. "There's no such thing as a safe tan."
  • Keep your appearance in mind: Sun exposure accelerates the aging of your skin. If melanoma risk is not enough to keep you motivated, let your appearance be your guide.  

ABCDE: Warning Signs of Melanoma

Untreated, melanoma can spread through the body and eventually become life-threatening. The sooner you spot it, the better the odds of a good outcome.

"If [a cancerous mole is] caught early, treatment can be a simple outpatient procedure," Venna said. "But if melanoma is not identified in early stages, the patient is faced with some tough decisions about treatment."

Cancerous moles and skin lesions most commonly appear on the upper back, torso, lower legs, head and neck. Remember these warning signs to spot problems early:

  • (A)symmetry: One half of the mole doesn't match the other half.
  • (B)order: The mole has an irregular border with ragged, notched or blurred edges.
  • (C)olor: Moles that are not uniform in color, with a mottled appearance or different shades of brown, black, red, white or blue.
  • (D)iameter: Moles that are greater than 6 millimeters are more likely to be problematic, though melanomas can be smaller.
  • (E)volving: Moles or skin lesions that look different from the others or change in shape, size and color.

You practice hard and play hard -- but with a bit of planning, reducing your risk of skin cancer can be one of the easiest things you do each day.

For more information or to make an appointment, call 703-970-6430 or visit Inova Melanoma and Skin Cancer Center.