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Lance Cpl. Iris Santana, a fiscal clerk with the disbursing office, Company A, Headquarters and Support Battalion, Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune, sprays on sunscreen before going to work, recently. Sunscreen protects individuals from ultraviolet rays that cause sunburns and can lead to skin cancer.

Photo by Cpl. Jo Jones

Sunscreen helps shield against cancer, burns

29 Jul 2010 | Cpl. Jo Jones

Whether used on the beaches of Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune or the battlefields of Afghanistan, there is one agent that protects service members, families and Department of Defense civilians from one of the most dangerous forms of radiation on the planet – ultraviolet rays.

Like modular tactical vests shielding military personnel from shrapnel, sunscreen deflects these invisible rays, which cause sunburns and other serious health problems.

“It’s important to wear sunscreen to prevent the damage caused by UV light, which leads to wrinkles and skin cancer,” said Navy Lt. Katherine Holcomb, a staff dermatologist at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune. “There is no such thing as a safe tan.”

Two well-known sources that emit UV light are the sun and tanning beds. The sun emits both long waves known as UVA and short waves known as UVB.  UVA can penetrate deep into the skin and easily pass through windows and car glass. UVB is the component of sunlight that causes a burn.

Holcomb said exposure to UVA suppresses the immune system, thereby decreasing the human body's ability to protect itself from skin cancer. She explained UVA also destroys collagen and elastin, which leads to wrinkles.  Additionally, UVA contributes to the development of age spots. Holcomb added long-term exposure to UVB is also believed to play a role in the development of skin cancer.

“Because of the risk of skin cancer with exposure to sunlight, the United States Department of Health and Human Services has declared UV radiation to be a carcinogen,” said Holcomb.

“This includes natural sunlight as well as the light from tanning beds. Tanning beds emit both UVA and UVB … studies have shown exposure to UV radiation from tanning beds causes DNA damage and can cause eye damage leading to the development of cataracts and ocular melanoma,” she added.

To combat these diseases, Holcomb recommends purchasing sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum,” because it protects people from both UVA and UVB. For people who lead an active lifestyle or frequently spend time outdoors, the term water resistant is another important characteristic of sunscreen because it lasts longer when in contact with water and perspiration.

Every sunscreen bottle is labeled with a sun protection factor number.  SPF is calculated by comparing the time to sunburn with sunscreen on.  Holcomb said SPF only indicates the UVB protection in the sunscreen.  However, studies are currently being conducted to measure the UVA protection in sunscreen.  Holcomb added broad spectrum sunscreen offers some protection from UVA.

Sunscreen comes in a number of forms: gel, spray and lotion being the most popular. Holcomb said sunscreen, in whatever form, would protect people from the sun, provided they apply it correctly and frequently.

“For sunscreen to work properly, it should be applied about 30 minutes before going outdoors,” said Holcomb.

She continued, “You must also re-apply it every two hours that you are outside or sooner if you swim or sweat heavily.  Most people wear much less sunscreen than they are supposed to. One application on the body should be approximately one ounce.”

Holcomb said the most preventable risk factor for development of skin cancer is sun exposure. While sunscreen is a resourceful tool to aid in the fight against short- and long-term health consequences, Holcomb also stressed the importance of wearing protective clothing, wearing sunglasses as eye protection, staying indoors when the sun is strongest – between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m. – and getting adequate vitamin D by making healthy lifestyle choices.

“Currently, dermatologists believe the safest way to get vitamin D is from diet and supplementation,” said Holcomb.  “Since UV radiation is considered a carcinogen, tanning to get your vitamin D is not advisable.”

Lance Cpl. Iris Santana, a fiscal clerk with the disbursing office, Company A, Headquarters and Support Battalion, MCB Camp Lejeune, said she wears sunscreen both to the beach and to work. With formations, drill and other events taking place outdoors, Santana said she recognizes how important it is for those who protect the country’s freedom to also protect themselves.

“Anyone who works outside has to worry about getting burned,” said Santana. “”Even though you are not going to the beach, you are still outside and can get burned because you have exposed areas.”

Cpl. Jessica Rodiles, a separations clerk with the disbursing office, Company A, HQSPTBN, once visited a dermatologist for skin complications. Although she is healthy today, Rodiles said she takes several precautions to protect herself from getting sunburned and stressed the need for everyone to heed the knowledge and the advice of medical experts.

“It’s important to take care of your skin,” said Rodiles. “It’s better to do it now than pay the consequences later.”