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Florida bears an unforgiving sun

To help readers cope with the elements, we offer the final in a series of summer survival guides.

The sun can be fun, but it can also be deadly.

Scientists aren't sure why, but skin cancer is on the rise. It could be that the thinning ozone layer is letting more of the damaging sun rays reach the earth, or it could be we still haven't changed our sun-loving ways, despite knowing more about the dangers of tanning and burning.

"It's still associated with good looks, unfortunately. Everyone wants a tan," said Ann von Spiegelfeld, a registered nurse who coordinates community education for Moffitt Cancer Center. "I think people are paying attention, but their behaviors aren't changing."

Protecting yourself and your children isn't as easy as picking the cheapest sunscreen.

Many block only UVB rays, the rays responsible for tanning and burning. But UVA rays still get through. And it's the UVA rays that penetrate deeply and can cause several forms of skin cancer.

So don't assume that slathering on a sunscreen is all that's needed. Experts recommend using a "broad spectrum" sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

It's also important to apply the sunscreen about 30 minutes before going outside because it takes time to penetrate all the layers of skin, von Spiegelfeld said. Use a sunscreen with an SPF rating of at least 15. Sunscreens with an SPF rating of 30 tend to be more concentrated, von Spiegelfeld said, and may stay on longer.

Sunscreens are especially important for children because sun exposure in childhood can lead to skin cancer in later life. Even one or two serious burns early in life can substantially increase the risk of skin cancer.

"Many people think a sunburn or a suntan is a temporary condition," said Debbie Lucas, a community health educator at Moffitt. "You may even think a tan is healthy. However, with each exposure to the sun, damage occurs beneath the surface of the skin.."

People with fair skin have the greatest risk of developing skin cancer. But in Florida, everyone is in danger.

"Generally the biggest risk factors for skin cancer are being sun-exposed and having a fair complexion, von Spiegelfeld said. "But we still see it in people with dark skin, especially in Florida, because our rays are really harsh here."


The difference between tanning and burning is slight. But you'll know when you've passed it. You hurt, but more importantly, you can develop skin cancer with overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays. In short stints in the sun, the skin produces a brown pigment in the skin called melanin. But stay out too long, and the pigment production can't keep pace. Consider these and other factors when you're searching for that bronzed look:


As much as 90% of the sun's rays is reflected by sand, concrete and snow surfaces.


Every 100 feet above sea level, UV rays increase 4% to 5%.


The closer you are to the equator, the stronger the sun's rays are.


Some medications can make skin more susceptible to sunburn.

Clouds and haze

Clouds block heat, but only 20% or less of harmful UV radiation.

Steps for protection

Limit exposure _ The sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Stay out of the sun during those hours.

Use a sunscreen _ Apply a SPF 15 or higher sunscreen when you spend time outdoors. Reapply after swimming.

Cover up _ Protect your skin with long-sleeved shirts and pants, broad-brimmed hats and UV blocking sunglasses.

Protect children _ Because skin damage accumulates over time, sun safety for children should be a priority.

Seek shade _ Keep in mind however that sunlight bouncing off reflective surfaces can still reach you.

Need relief?

A first-degree sunburn (mild redness but no blistering) can be treated with cool compresses. Re-dampen compresses as they warm. Or try aloe vera (the common houseplant work best). For pain and inflammation, use aspirin or Ibuprofen. Pregnant women should always check with a doctor before taking ANY medication.

When to see a doctor

If extensive blistering occurs, it is considered to be a second-degree burn and should be examined by a physician. Blistered burns can get infected.

Sources: The Skin Cancer Foundation, Before you Call the Doctor, National Weather Service, Knight-Ridder Tribune