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5 Things Women Should Know About Their Skin

    • By now you know better. Sun is bad, bad, bad for your skin.

      And yet – if you’re like this writer – you’re probably guilty of half-hearted sun protection from time to time. After all, that “oops” of a tan looks pretty nice with a new halter top and sandals. Despite warnings of premature aging and skin cancer, many of us still sport the occasional sunburn and secretly relish the golden glow.

      “Believe me, I understand,” says Oakland-based dermatologist Tomi Wall, M.D. “I was out of the beach baking as a teenager and still love to be outside. The key, though is moderation and prevention.”

      When it comes to tanning, blame it on Coco Chanel, say both Dr. Wall and San Mateo dermatologist Peter Webb, M.D. It was Chanel who, more than 50 years ago, arrived at the Cannes Film Festival dark and slightly burned. People were shocked but delighted. While average Joe grew sallow in the offices and factories of modern cities, the media at Cannes declared Coco’s tan the look -- an antidote to industrial life. A deep tan quickly became synonymous with a life of leisure, wealth and glamour.

      Today, however, the tide has turned. According to dermatologists and beauty experts alike, sun-free, youthful skin is the new ideal. And it’s not just about aesthetics. More than 1 million people will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year, according to the National Cancer Institute and the American Academy of Dermatology. New research also shows a rise in melanoma rates among Latinos and other people of color.

      “Everything we can do to protect ourselves from things that cause aging and disease, is much better than trying to reverse the damage once it has happened,” says Dr. Wall.

      With that in mind, here are the top five things women should know about their skin today:

    • #1 - You Need More Than Sunscreen

    • “Sunscreen is much less effective than we ever thought,” says Dr. Webb.

      Sunscreen is tested in laboratories on people who aren’t sweating, aren’t active and have put on the perfect amount. In real life, on the other hand, many people misuse sunscreen by failing to apply enough and forgetting to reapply as needed. Even waterproof and “sport proof” sunscreens wear off and must be reapplied at least every two hours.

      “The sun destroys many of the protective property of sunscreens,” says Dr. Webb. “It literally cooks the sunscreen. I think of it as a shield of armor that has been shot full of holes.”

      Sunscreen was developed in World War II for sunburned soldiers working in hot climates, says Dr. Wall. The first sunscreen wasn’t white, but was in fact red petrolatum.

      “This wasn’t something designed for people to go out and have fun in the sun,” she adds.

      Today’s sunscreen manufacturers have come a long way, but many sunscreens still fail to protect the skin against aging and skin cancers. While a number of sunscreens promise UVB/UVA protection, Dr. Wall says she is surprised to see how few contain the specific ingredients needed to guard against UVA, the rays that age the skin and contribute to skin cancer.

      “I tell people to look at the ingredients,” says Wall. “Your sunscreen needs to include zinc, titanium, parsol 1789 or mixoral to protect against UVA rays. If it has one of those, then you’ve got a good sunscreen.”

      Still, for the best protection people should seek shade, avoid peak sun hours and wear protective clothing when outdoors. If in the sun, apply a minimum level 30 UVA/UVB sunscreen and reapply at least every two hours, more if you’ve been in water or sweating.

    • #2 - Pale Skin is Youthful Skin

    • Look at the skin on your bottom. How different is it from the skin on your face? What you see is the difference between sun exposure and full protection. Irregular coloration, blotchy skin, increased capillaries and overall redness mark the beginning of the skin’s “weathering” process. As we age, wrinkles begin to appear and the skin grows thinner.

      “The groundwork for all these problems is laid in teenage years, accelerates in the 20s, and comes to harvest in the 30s,” says Dr. Webb. “The broken blood vessels, the bruises on the hands and arms, the rough, scaly patches of precancerous growths – that’s all sun. This is a harvest you don’t want.”

      Anyone who has seen the notorious film Something about Mary remembers the leathery old gal in the furry mules. Dr. Wall likes to conjure up this image for patients who insist on repeated sun or tanning bed exposure.

      “I say, ‘Do you want to look like that old lady in Something about Mary?!” she jokes. “Every time you get a tan, it’s your body telling you that there has been damage. It protects itself by producing more melanin.”

    • #3 - Get a Hat and Don’t Leave Home Without It

    • John F. Kennedy sounded the death knell for the age of hats. When he showed up for his presidential inauguration tanned and hat free, men everywhere hung up their fedoras, bowlers and top hats for good.

      But today, Dr. Webb encourages people to invest in the stock of hat companies (only half-jokingly). Nothing protects the face like a hat, says Dr. Webb. In countries like Spain, Australia and New Zealand school children don’t go out to recess without a hat. Dr. Webb hopes to see the same habits come to pass in the States as well.

      “You need to be the person who people don’t recognize without your hat,” says Dr. Webb. “It has to be a habit.”

      Dr. Wall adds that consistency is the real key. “Whether it’s sunscreen or a hat, it has to be a part of your life every day, so you don’t get sunburned on that one overcast day.”

    • #4 – Check Your Skin Every Month

    • More than half of all cancers are skin cancer, and as many as 1 million people are diagnosed with non-melanoma skin cancer each year, according to the American Cancer Society. Adults should know about the signs of non-melanoma skin cancers, as well as how to spot a melanoma.

      Dermatologists recommend a thorough self check once a month in addition to an annual exam with a physician. Begin a skin check by rubbing a towel roughly over the face, hands, arms, trunk, legs and feet. Any spots that bleed easily may raise a red flag. “This kind of buffing is a maneuver that can help people be alert,” says Dr. Webb. “Your skin should not bleed if you rub it hard.”

      If anything looks abnormal or seems to be changing, see a doctor right away. Skin cancer of all forms is highly curable when caught early.

    • #5 – It’s Never Too Late

    • Think your skin is beyond hope? Think again.

      Dr. Wall talks about her husband’s years as a lifeguard in New Jersey, a stint that brought its fair share of blisters and peeling skin. Today Wall’s husband, also a dermatologist, is nearly 40 and shows very little signs of aging. Despite early skincare transgressions, he took great care to protect his skin as an adult and has essentially short-circuited much of the sun’s damage.

      “The good news is that the skin repairs itself,” says Dr. Webb. “People say, ‘I can’t do anything about that now.’ The fact is that you can. If you mend your ways in a diligent fashion you can undo some of the damage.”

      Skin renews itself every two weeks, and while gravity and age do take their toll, women today have helpful tools to help mend what nature cannot. Webb encourages women to eschew the miracle potion of the month and instead look for gentle skin products that feel good and don’t cause excessive tightness or peeling. Beyond basic skincare, women can try a number of effective therapeutic options.

      Prescription strength retinoids like Retin-A and Tazorac sit at the conservative end of the spectrum of treatment, helping to increase the skin’s cellular turn-over rate. Moving along the spectrum, women can explore laser treatments and chemical peels as well.

      One popular laser treatment referred to as IPL (intense pulse light) can get rid of red patches, capillaries, brown spots. Although it doesn’t get rid of wrinkles, it can make a visible difference, says Webb. IPL is a simple “lunchtime” procedure that involves no downtime. Meanwhile, more aggressive lasers do help with wrinkles but require longer recovery periods.

      Botox injections and collagen fillers are also safe ways to relax frown muscles and plump the skin, but only under the care of a qualified practitioner. Dr. Wall encourages women to research their options, looking for doctors with board certification and specialized training in cosmetic procedures. She encourages people to ask questions like, “How many procedures have you done?” and “What is your training in this particular device?”

      Each woman requires an individual approach, say both Drs. Webb and Wall. “I ask women, ‘What is the first thing that draws your eye when you look in the mirror?’” says Dr. Webb. “The key is identifying the issues and choosing the appropriate treatment for that person.”

    Ask our experts your health question(s).