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Skin Cancer Safety Tips: Protect Yourself While In the Garden

Astronomers and almanacs tell me that spring will have sprung in the Northern Hemisphere at 1:14 AM, Eastern Daylight Time, on March 20, 2012. To the best of my knowledge, no trumpet calls or ringing bells will herald the arrival of the Vernal Equinox, but, despite that fact, it is still one of those magic times on our gardening calendar.


Although this winter has been pretty mild in most sections of the country, I still take a measure of comfort in the calendar confirmation of the arrival of warmer temperatures and longer periods of daylight. The arrival of spring means we’ll be spending more time in our gardens preparing to grow the food that will keep us healthy, happy, and less dependent on an increasingly tainted food chain.

Of course, spending more time in the garden means spending more time out in the sunlight. While sunlight is a great thing for your veggies, trees and herbs, it can do a number on your skin. It is now estimated that about 90 percent of the wear and tear that shows up on your precious epidermis, everything from age spots to wrinkles, isn’t the result of the number of times you’ve circled the sun but is directly related to the number of unprotected hours you’ve been soaking up the sun’s rays.

To fully appreciate the full beating your skin can take from the sun, it helps to understand a bit about the ultraviolet radiation that does the bulk of the damage.

The scientists who study this sort of thing generally break ultraviolet light into three different flavors, based on wavelength. The UVA group has the longest wavelengths, ranging from 320 to 400 nanometers in length. Since a nanometer is just about a billionth of a yard long, we can quickly see that longest is a relative term when we’re talking about light waves. The UVB group is where we find the rays that cause nasty sunburns. Wavelengths that measure 290 to 320 nanometers are classified UVB. When the wavelengths get shorter than 290 nanometers, we’re mostly talking UVC. Technically, when the wavelength gets as small as 10 nanometers, we move into X-ray territory, but we’re not going there today so the less said the better.

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Actually, we can now leave UVC out of the discussion as well. Most UVC rays get blocked by the ozone layer and don’t get a chance to touch our delicate bodies. From my reading, we all might want to take a moment to be grateful for that much-abused ozone layer because continued exposure to UVC would kill us in pretty short order.

When it comes to ultraviolet radiation, our prime concerns these days are UVA and UVB.

This hasn’t always been the case. It wasn’t all that long ago that nobody but a few worry-wart scientists were all that concerned with UVA. Back then, the focus was on UVB. We knew that UVB caused sunburns, and we eventually learned that people who got sunburns on a regular basis were more prone to coming down with skin cancer. It was thought that UVB was the only form of ultraviolet radiation that played a part in skin cancers and that the worse things UVA did was cause wrinkles and some other signs of aging.

Well, to quote a harmless musical ditty, “that was then, this is now.”

Studies over the past two decades have shown that UVA damages skin cells called keratinocytes in the basal layer of the epidermis, and this just happens to be the place where most skin cancers occur. The fact that UVA contributes to and might even be responsible for starting the whole skin cancer process adds up to one big problem for people who like to be outdoors a lot.

UVA makes up about 95 percent of the ultraviolet radiation that reaches the surface of the earth. While the more intense but less prevalent UVB rays are most powerful when the sun is high in sky in the summer months, UVA is an equal-opportunity destroyer. UVA strikes us with just about the same amount of intensity during every hour of daylight every day of the year. To make matters just a bit worse, unlike UVB, UVA has no problem penetrating clouds or glass.

Before you start making plans to spend the rest of your life in a dark windowless room, I’d like to share a little good news.

Although the sunscreen industry is in a period of transition, it is possible to find decent broad-spectrum sunscreens that will provide some protection from both UVA and UVB rays.

Before we break out the sunscreen, however, I’d like to pass on a few other essential tips for people like me who enjoy working and playing outdoors.

1) Dress to limit your exposure to UV Rays

Bright- or dark-colored, lustrous clothes reflect more UV radiation than pastels and bleached cotton. Tightly woven, loose-fitting clothes provide more of barrier between your skin and the sun. If you want to take an extra step, purchase special sun protective clothes with a UPF of 30 or better.

2) Wear a broad brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.

These will help shield the sensitive skin on your neck, head, and around your eyes. Since UV rays have also been charged in with aiding the development of cataracts, a really good pair of UV-blocking sunglasses are essential.

3)Whenever possible, try to avoid gardening tasks from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

This won’t cut down your UVA exposure, but it will give you a break from those intense little UVB rays.

As for sunscreen, I could write an entire column on that topic, and that’s exactly what I plan to do in the second half of this series. As for now, I strongly suggest a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher, but I wouldn’t spend any extra nickels and dimes for anything with an SPF of higher than 50. As I’ll explain later, it just isn’t worth it. Look for active ingredients like zinc, titanium, avobenzone, or Mexoryl SX. These substances block harmful UVA and remain on the skin with, in most cases, little, if any, penetration into your bloodstream. Avoid sunscreens with fancy fragrances or ones that also contain insect repellent. If you need to repel bugs, use a separate product and apply it before you apply your sunscreen. Oh, and please avoid sunscreen sprays and powders; creams are better for your skin and your respiratory system.

Welcome to spring! I hope you get time to enjoy this warmer weather and have begun taking measures to protect yourself from the sun’s ultraviolet radiation. Drop by again soon for a more thorough discussion of the pros and cons of common sunscreens. Until then, best wishes for a pleasant and prosperous time in your survival garden.

©2012 Off the Grid News

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