Don’t get burned. Here’s Sun Protection 101 for gardeners.
What would a garden do without the sun? Sun is energy. Sun is life. But boy, can it burn. The job of tending to plants can be risky business if skin is not protected. Skin cancer is the No. 1 cancer in the United States—has been for years. “The rate of melanoma is increasing every year,” points out Susan Chon, M.D., assistant professor of dermatology at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. One out of five Americans will have skin cancer by the age of 55.
That’s scary stuff. And gardeners are noted for soaking up more than their fair share of the rays. Dr. Chon says gardeners often come to her office with acute sunburn on their necks and upper shoulders. And the worst thing you can do is get burned. “We know that sunburn is a risk factor for developing melanoma,” Dr. Chon says. That’s the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
The vast majority of skin cancers are basal and squamous cell cancers, a more begnin form, Dr. Chon describes. According to the American Cancer Society, eight out of 10 skin cancer diagnoses are basal cell cancers that develop on sun-exposed areas, especially the head and neck. And at least half of those who develop basal skin cancer will develop a new skin cancer within five years.
The good news: “When the more benign cancers like basal cell are caught early on, you can usually eradicate the cancer with surgery alone,” Dr. Chon says. The same goes for melanoma, except this form of cancer is much more aggressive and has a higher mortality rate. It accounts for less than 5 percent of skin cancers, but the most deaths.
It’s one thing to read the statistics, but most of us tune out when we’re focused on our work outdoors. When’s the last time you gardened mid-day—and did you forget to apply sun protection to the tops of your ears? Since the weather was so hot, did you weed the beds wearing a tank top and shorts?
With some basic sun protection strategies, you can drastically reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. Here, A Garden Life provides some smart sun strategies and the low-down on sunscreen labeling so you can shop for the best protection.
Watch the Clock. Be an early bird or spend twilight in the garden – just avoid that intense mid-day sun. “The earlier the better,” Dr. Chon says, recommending that gardeners put away the trowel by 10 a.m. and take a break until 4 or 5 p.m., at least. While you’re outdoors, remember to reapply sunscreen. “Gardeners get so involved they tend to lose track of time, so they get sunburned,” Dr. Chon says. “Make sure you set an alarm on your watch or something that reminds you to reapply sunscreen or take a rest.”
Now that you’re examining every mole, freckle and spot on your skin, refer these ABC (D & E) guidelines to help you determine if there’s cause for concern. Regular self-skin exams should be performed at least every couple of months. “You have to know what’s there so you can see if anything changes,” Dr. Chon points out.
A. is for Asymetry. One half is different than the other half.
B. is for Border Irregularity. The edges are notched, uneven or blurred.
C. is for Color. The color is uneven. Shades of brown, tan and black are present.
D. is for Diameter.Diameter is greater than 6 millimeters, about the size of a pencil eraser head.
E. is for Evolution. If a mole is bleeding, itching, scaling, hurts or does not feel the same, you should see a dermatologist.
Go Under Cover. Sunscreen is the last line of defense. The first is to avoid the sun during intense hours, and to protect the skin by wearing clothing that covers the skin. Some brands like Solumbra offer clothing with UVA and UVB protection. Light, breathable fabrics make long-sleeve shirts comfortable, even in the heat of day. Arm protection is critical for gardeners.
Always protect your head with a hat. Some have back flaps that cover the neck, or consider wearing a handkerchief that protects that tender area. Shirts with collars that can be flipped up also do the job.
“If you can, try to spend as much time gardening in the shade as possible,” Dr. Chon recommends.
Slather Up. Don’t skimp on the sunscreen. It’s not your treasured facial moisturizer—the one you sparingly apply using a pea-sized drop. Apply sun protection generously and according to label (some recommend every 80 minutes, for example).
Dr. Chon recommends reviewing the active ingredient list on sunscreen before making a purchase. Look for a mineral sunscreen. “Zinc oxide covers a wider spectrum of UV radiation,” she explains. “It’s much less irritating and wears well for sweating and getting wet.” Look for SPF of 30, at the very least. “That will give you 97-percent coverage if used correctly,” she says.
What’s inside that sunscreen bottle hasn’t changed. But the label will look different this year. New FDA-mandated labels were required on almost all sunscreens by June 18.
The purpose: To tone down marketing claims (waterproof, sunblock) and reveal more about test results, as in how long a sunscreen will last while you’re swimming.