As the Colorado summer quickly approaches, it is important to remember to protect your skin from the sun's harmful rays. While we are blessed with over 300 sunny days per year on average, our high elevation curses us by putting us closer to the sun and at higher risk for sunburns, sun damage and skin cancer. Colorado has the highest skin cancer rates in the nation — nearly 30 percent higher than the nationwide rate, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — so it’s important to stay informed and diligent about sun protection.
The widely believed notion that most sun damage occurs before the age of 18 has been proven false by newer studies that show incidental sun exposure as adults actually accounts for more than half of the sun damage received by the average person over a lifetime. So, just a short mid-morning walk, a quick nine holes of golf, or chatting up a neighbor outdoors for 20 minutes in the late afternoon can contribute to sun damage. All of those unassuming moments spent outdoors add up to hours, days and weeks of long-term damage caused by UV radiation. Colorado residents need to take extra care to protect from the sun, because UV radiation increases 10-12 percent for every 3,000 feet of elevation gain.
Repeated unprotected sun exposure over a 20-year span dramatically increases the risk of skin cancer and pre-cancerous lesions. Unlike other cancers that peak in the later years of life, malignant melanoma is common in young adults in their 20s and 30s. In fact, melanoma is the leading cause of cancer death in young women aged 18-34, and the second-leading cause of cancer death in young men of the same age group. Melanoma is much less common than non-melanoma skin cancer, but its incidence appears to be increasing and it can be fatal in some cases, according to the CDPHE. Social trends favoring tanned skin, increased popularity of tanning beds and a reduction in the protective ozone layer are several factors contributing to higher rates.
One person dies every hour in this country from skin cancer. That is a staggering fact considering skin cancer is one of the easiest cancers to treat and cure if detected early. To spot skin cancer, look for changing brown moles, spots that bleed easily and areas of the skin that repeatedly crust and never quite heal. It is important to perform self-checks of skin regularly and to visit your health care provider to have a skin check at least every one to two years as a part of overall health maintenance.
Sun protection is, of course, the first step in avoiding skin cancer. Clothing should always be considered as the first line of defense. A hat can do wonders for preventing sun damage. Statistics show that there is a 10 percent reduction in skin cancer of the face with every 1 inch of a brim on a hat. Sun protective T-shirts, swim shirts and pants are now much more widely available in sporting goods stores and online. Many of these garments are made with a lightweight, tightly woven fabric to allow cooling while offering sun protection.
Sunscreens can also be very helpful if used appropriately. Instead of only looking at SPF, pay attention to the active ingredients. Transparent zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are excellent physical blockers of UV rays. Chemical sunscreens are degraded more quickly by the sun, but newer formulations seem to be more stable. Look for avobenzone in the active ingredient list. Most importantly, re-apply sunscreen every 90 minutes when outside, especially when sweating or when spending time in the water. Visit The Woodhouse Day Spa in Castle Pines for Skin Ceuticals line of sunscreens with sheer zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. This line is cosmetically elegant and can protect your skin from our high-elevation rays in Colorado.