Learning the ABCs of SPFs

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Topics include: Understanding and Living Well

One of the deadliest skin cancers is melanoma, and sadly it’s on the rise.  It’s important to protect ourselves year-round from harmful sunrays. Dr. Sapna Patel, an assistant professor of melanoma at MD Anderson Cancer Center, shares tips for protecting yourself and your loved ones against melanoma.  She provides a basic overview of SPF and what you should look for when buying sunscreen. 

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Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

Andrew Schorr:

Hello and welcome to Patient Power. I’m Andrew Schorr. Maybe you’re aware that melanoma is one the rise-our deadliest skin cancer. And yet there are so many products on the market with SPF factors, sun protection factor numbers. We don’t always understand them. We certainly don’t always understand the ABCs of malignant melanoma. So to help us understand is Dr. Sapna Patel, a melanoma specialist from MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Carol Preston:

What do we as patients need to know about protecting ourselves?

Dr. Patel:

Well, it's a good topic and very timely, as you said. Melanoma Awareness Month just completed.  Melanoma is one of the cancers on the rise.  So if you look at cancers from the 1970s to now, breast cancer is declining, rates of cancer lung cancer are declining, cervical cancer.  Melanoma, in fact, is doing the opposite.  It's on the rise.  And this may be due to increased sun exposure, increased outdoor activities

So one of the most important things we need to do is early education in protection, so that means educating our youth that poor sun behavior and poor sun hygiene can lead to long-term consequences, not only skin aging and sun spots but also skin cancer.

Melanoma also is one of those cancers whose scars, surgical scars are not subtle, so I think it really helps for melanoma patients to advocate then to our youth and just tell them, “Listen, had I known what I know maybe I wouldn't have this orange or six-inch scar on my visible skin, on my sun-exposed body part.”  So I think that's really important to educate the youth.

In terms of sunscreen use, we need to remember that not all sunscreens are alike.  Recently, the FDA though did mandate some rules making sunscreens a little more uniform on the shelf, and so any sunscreen that's called broad spectrum means it protects you not only against ultraviolet A rays but also ultraviolet B rays.  That's considered broad spectrum.

Also, you want to use an SPF that is at least an SPF of 30.  That blocks over 90 percent of the ultraviolet rays from penetrating the skin.  You want to apply it early, 20 to 30 minutes before sun exposure, and often, 80 to 90 minutes, maybe every two hours when you're out in the sun, and more often if you're swimming, sweating, anything that could—or wiping it off the skin, anything that can remove it from the skin.

The other thing to remember is you might want to consider products that have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.  While these products are a little harder to find, these are topical barriers that prevent actually the UV from penetrating the skin, physically deflecting it as opposed to other sun screens that have a different

chemical and actually absorb the ultraviolet A and B.

Carol Preston:

All right.  So the basics are, first of all, stay out of the sun, but if you have to, SPF of at least 30 and apply it early and often.

Dr. Patel:

That's right.

Carol Preston:

To maintain that protection, whether you're a melanoma patient or anybody who is venturing out over the next few months as we are now in the summer season.

Dr. Patel:

Absolutely right.  And the other thing to remember is when you are out in the sun if you want to get a sense of if the sun's rays are at their strongest, look at your shadow. And if your shadow is shorter than you are tall, then the sun's rays are fairly intense, and you want to avoid direct sunlight.  And don't forget sunglasses. Sunglasses is protection for your eyes, which is another location where you can get melanoma.

Carol Preston:

Thank you very much, Dr. Saphna Patel of MD Anderson.

Andrew Schorr:

Some important tips from Dr. Sapna Patel to help you and your family be safe and lower your risk of malignant melanoma. I’m Andrew Schorr. Remember, knowledge can be the best medicine of all.

Please remember the opinions expressed on Patient Power are not necessarily the views of our sponsors, contributors, partners or Patient Power. Our discussions are not a substitute for seeking medical advice or care from your own doctor. That’s how you’ll get care that’s most appropriate for you.

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Page last updated on March 29, 2015