Older folks’ skin has less fat and lower water content, and the sun’s rays penetrate it more deeply – making us vulnerable as we age.
Cooped up for six months of the year, no one does summer like we do. Your summer to-do list might include working on that golf handicap, spending time at the lake or hiking a new trail. But does the list include lathering your skin in sunscreen and putting on a hat? Just because you’ve already celebrated your 55th birthday, doesn’t mean you don’t need to protect yourself from the sun. In fact, it may be important now more than ever.
The sun’s rays can make you feel good, and a little bit of sunshine a day can increase your levels of vitamin D. But overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays can have serious consequences, and the largest organ in your body will pay the price.
Your skin plays an important role in overall health – it regulates body temperature and converts sunshine into vitamin D. It’s your first defence against environmental contaminants and an effective barrier against harmful germs. It keeps water in and helps prevent dehydration.
As we get older, the structure of our skin begins to change. It starts to lose fat and water content and becomes thinner and more delicate. That thinner skin allows the sun’s UV rays to penetrate deeper into the skin. Older skin doesn’t produce as much natural oil either, so it can become rough and dry.
Your body’s ability to repair damaged skin also diminishes with age. According to a study from the University College London, older adults are at a higher risk for developing skin cancer because their skin doesn’t immobilize immune cells as well.
Poh-Lin Lim, a clinical nurse specialist for geriatrics and wound care at the Victoria General Hospital, says older skin is more vulnerable, especially if you have compounding medical issues like diabetes or circulatory problems. It becomes very important then, says Poh-Lin, to take steps to prevent skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in Canada and accounts for about one-third of all new cases. According to the Canadian Cancer Society, skin cancer also has one of the fastest-rising cancer rates in this country. This may be surprising to some – Canada is not exactly known for its warm climate, and skin cancer is one of the most preventable types of cancer. So what’s going on?
Skin cancer is caused by exposure to UV radiation from both the sun and tanning beds. A Canadian survey conducted over the last decade revealed that individuals are spending more time in the sun unprotected. Adults are spending two or more hours a day in the sun during summer and even longer than that on winter vacations. Despite the increased sun exposure, fewer adults reported wearing sunscreen, protective clothing and/or hats now than reported positively 10 years ago.
In retirement, you’re likely spending more time in the sun than ever before – having joined, perhaps, a senior golf league or afternoon walking group. Some Canadian retirees become snowbirds, moving to warmer climates in winter and increasing their sun exposure exponentially.
The increased time spent in the sun unprotected, coupled with age-related changes to your skin and immune system, can elevate your risk of developing skin cancer.
Here, then, are some important sun safety tips.
- Cover up. Wear light-coloured, loose-fitting clothing, preferably a long-sleeved shirt and long pants or a skirt. The light-coloured fabric will reflect the sun and offer some protection against the UV rays. Clinical nurse Poh-Lin also recommends a hat with a wide brim (at least three inches) to shelter your face, neck and ears. Avoid wearing a baseball cap, which exposes the ears, a common site for skin cancer in men. And don’t forget your eyes! Wear sunglasses that provide UV protection.
- Limit your time outside between the hours of 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the UV rays are strongest. In other words, try to get that early morning tee-time! When your shadow is shorter than you are, the sun is at its highest point in the sky and very intense and a good rule of thumb is to seek shade wherever possible in that period. If you have a day at the beach planned, bring a large umbrella to create some shade and make sure to stay hydrated. Older adults are also at a higher risk for heat exhaustion and sun stroke.
- Wear sunscreen. Lather it onto any exposed areas of skin at least 20 minutes before you go outside. If you’re swimming, apply a waterproof sunscreen at least an hour before jumping in the pool, and don’t forget to re-apply when you’ve dried off. The Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 30. Protect your lips as well, with a SPF 30 lip balm or lipstick.
If you are concerned about sun exposure and skin cancer, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your health-care provider for a head-to-toe skin check. For more information on the warning signs for skin cancer and early detection, please visit the Canadian Skin Cancer Foundation at www.canadianskincancerfoundation.com.
Krystal Simpson is a communications officer with Victoria Lifeline, a not-for-profit service of the Victoria Hospital Foundation.