Protect The Skin You're In!

Protect The Skin You're In! Plastic surgery nurse practitioner Marcia Spear discusses how to reduce the risk of skin cancer caused by sun exposure.

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Stephanie Townsend: Welcome to this edition of the Vanderbilt University Health and Wellness Wellcast. I am Stephanie Townsend with Vanderbilt Occupational Health. We are here to speak with Marcia Spear, Nurse Practitioner in the Department of Plastic Surgery concerning skin protection. How important is skin protection? Marcia Spear: Lifelong sun protection is important in preventing premature aging and also for decreasing the risk of skin cancers. It is never too early to start. It should start as young children. Skin protection including sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer protecting you from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays, and anyone can get skin cancer regardless of age, race, or gender. So, it is important to begin early. Stephanie Townsend: What effects does direct sun exposure have on the skin? Marcia Spear: The effects of sun damage on your skin and overall health can vary depending on the level of sun exposure that you have had, your skin type. There are people who are more prone to burn which creates the problems with the sun exposure, your age, and a variety of other factors. UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and damage the dermis that contains the elastin fibers. This is what causes the loss of collagen and the signs of premature aging with the fine wrinkles and deeper skin folds. The UVB rays are absorbed by the top layer of the skin or the epidermis that cause the sun tanning that we see from the sunrays, so you have both the UVA and UVB rays that can cause damage to the skin. Stephanie Townsend: How much sun exposure is too much exposure? Marcia Spear: Well, who knows? It is just like most other things that we do that are not very good for us. Moderation is key. Some sun exposure is good because the sun is the sunshine vitamin. It gives us our vitamin D. Skin cancer is rare in children, but the amount of skin exposure during childhood is thought to increase the risk of developing skin cancer as we age into our adult lives, so it is very important to teach sun protection early and develop those habits that will carry us over into our adulthood. How much is too much? Short periods, 20 to 30 minutes maybe two to three times a day, but you again should always use your sun protection, so remember it is the repeated exposure. It is not the short periods of time that can cause the damage. It is the repeated long-term exposure that can cause the harmful damage that we get from sun. So the fewer the burns, the better, particularly when it comes to kids that are very fair complected because the risk of being exposed to the sun and the risk of developing melanoma has been linked to the number of sun burns that we get early in life. That causes most damage. Stephanie Townsend: What are some common signs and symptoms of skin damage from overexposure to the sun? Marcia Spear: Common signs and symptoms, you are going to see as we have said loss of the collagen in the skin that makes the skin saggy or say that it loses its stretch because those fibers are destroyed that is what gives us the premature signs of aging. We have to always remember that it is not only the sun exposure in the summer months, it is the winter months. It is 365 days a year, and I think a lot of us forget to stress sunscreen and sun protection for those 365 days, and we as health care providers just focus on “don’t go out in the sun without your sunscreen” in the summer months, but it is actually 365 days a year. Other damage that you will see from the sun, you will see areas of hyperpigmentation, sun damage, or brown aged spots that we sometimes see or freckles. Also, the sun can create the risk of abnormal growth of skin cells, and you can see skin tumors grow from overexposure to the sun. Stephanie Townsend: What ways can we protect our skin? Marcia Spear: Of course, education is critical. Those of us that are baby boomers, we did not hear the word sunscreen until much, much later in life, so we have to educate the younger people coming up that sunscreen every day, 365 days, and it should be applied more than once a day, and you apply it in the areas that are open, face, hands, arms, and neck because that is where you are going to see the risk of skin cancers or in the area that have had a long-term exposure to the sun. Don’t fall asleep in the sun without your sunscreen. You wear light clothing and large hats to cover the face. Do not get fooled by those cloudy days because you can also pick up sun damage on cloudy days as well, again too that is why you should wear sunscreen everyday regardless of the weather. Wear sunglasses. Use a sunscreen that has as few chemicals as possible. You need to do at least a 15 SPF which is the sun protection factor. If you are fair, you might want to do 30s, but 15 to 30 is usually acceptable as being enough. Sometimes, those 50s, 70s may be a marketing, whether they actually, you think maybe you are getting more sun protection because the number is larger, but there is no evidence to support that that is true. You want to use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that has both UVA and UVB protection because whenever heard the UVA causes the aging, UVB causes the tanning, the discoloration, and if you get a suntan, there is damage to the skin. Make sure it is water resistant, you want it to stay on, but you have to remember when your kids get out of the water, you reapply it because there is not any of it that is totally water resistant. You want to apply it 30 minutes before you go outside so it has time to absorb in the skin. You want to avoid those hotter parts of the day, get out early in the morning and maybe later in the day. There is no such thing as a healthy tan. I hear people say, “Oh, I feel better when I have a little color,” but the tan is the skin’s response to the sun’s damaging ray, and it is an indicator of sun damage. Stephanie Townsend: Well, thank you so much. Thanks for listening. Please feel free to leave us any comments on this Wellcast on the form at the bottom of this page. If you have a story suggestion, please email it to us at or you can use the “Contact Us” page on our website at -- end of recording  --