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Girl sunbathing

Protect Yourself From Dangerous UV Rays

By Terry O’Grady, M.D.

As surfers, we love the beach—the waves, the water, the fresh air and the sun. As much as we love the warmth of the sun on our backs when sitting in the line up, we need to be aware of the threat that this poses to our health.

Whether you have fair skin or dark skin, each day spent in the sun causes irreversible damage. The damage is cumulative, each "solar insult" added to the last.  Even on cloudy days, the ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate through to our skin.  It's even worse on those days because we don't feel the warmth and don't think we're being exposed.

UV rays from the sun damage the skin in many ways. One is to alter the clastic tissue, causing wrinkling and aging of the skin.  The freckling and "liver spots" or "old age spots" are from changes in the skin's color-producing cells.  The worst effect from UV radiation is alteration of the skin cells to form cancers.

There are two kinds: non-melanoma (basal cell and squamous cell) and melanoma.  Of the two, melanoma is the most serious and can cause death.  Although not usually as deadly, non-melanoma cancers can cause a great number of problems.   According to American Cancer Society statistics, more than a million people in the United States alone are diagnosed yearly with non-melanoma skin cancer, while 48,000 are diagnosed with melanoma. Although melanoma only represents 4 percent of skin cancer cases, it accounts for 79 percent of skin cancer deaths.  With this as a preventable risk, how do you protect yourself and still enjoy surfing?

The sun's rays are most dangerous between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. So if you can surf early in the morning or late in the afternoon, you reduce your risk significantly. When you’re out in the sun, wear sunscreen (hopefully "waterproof" or at least "water resistant") rated SPF 30 or greater, no matter what your skin tone. If you're out in the water an extended time, reapply the sunscreen.

When you're on the beach, wear protective clothing, especially a hat with a brim (this is especially important for surfers losing the natural protection of their hair!). Don't forget to wear sunglasses and seek the shade.  When in the water, wear a rash guard, tee shirts offer no protection from UV rays at all.

Examine your own skin for early skin cancers, look for sores that don't heal, new bumps or "moles" that suddenly appear.  Not all "spots" on your skin mean a cancerous growth, but rapidly-changing spots or bumps should be checked by your doctor.  If skin cancer is detected early, the prognosis is almost always very good!

Enjoy the surf and protect your skin.

Editor’s note: for more detailed information on skin cancer, visit these web sites:

Parents--some of these sites provide graphic images of cancer and have links to other medical sites that may not be appropriate for children.

American Academy of Dermatology

MSNBC Health

University of Pennsylvania

Afraid to Ask

University of California Davis

ABC Health Report

American Cancer Society