Sunburn can mean skin cancer, so doctors offer these tips to keep you from getting cooked

Memorial Day is the unofficial start of summer, but in Louisiana, sunburn season is already in full swing.

Overexposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays causes about 90 percent of skin cancer, said Dr. Keith LeBlanc Jr., a Metairie-based surgeon and dermatologist.

“Many people aren’t aware of how devastating the sun can be to unprotected skin,” LeBlanc said.

Skin cancer is almost an epidemic among those 25 to 40 years old, he said. One in five Americans born this year will suffer from some form of skin cancer, he said.

While the majority of skin cancers aren’t life-threatening melanomas, LeBlanc said, they can still cause disfigurement. Sun damage also causes premature aging, he said.

To better protect yourself, make these changes in your spring and summer habits:

Avoid peak sunlight

Exposure to ultraviolet rays reaches its peak in the summer between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.

“Anything you can do to avoid sun exposure during those hours is the best,” Le-Blanc said. “Kind of the rule of thumb is if your shadow is shorter than you are, it is best that you’re not in the sun.”

Cover up

Cover exposed skin as often as possible. Sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat keep the sun off your arms, ears and neck.

Men’s ears are especially susceptible to skin cancer because they are easy to miss with sunscreen and are often exposed.

“Women tend not to get as much on their ears because their hair tends to cover it,” he said. “Men, we’re either wearing a ball cap or nothing.”

Check yourself

Regularly examine your skin for suspicious moles or marks.

“Watch out for anything new, growing or bleeding, anything that does not look good for you,” LeBlanc said.

At SpotSkinCancer.org, a site operated by the American Academy of Dermatology, you can learn more about what kind of spots to watch for and download a body mole map to document all skin spots and how they change. That kind of knowledge is extremely helpful to dermatologists, LeBlanc said.

Get checked

Most people only need to be seen by a dermatologist once every two to three years, Le-Blanc said.

But people who have had a skin cancer need to be seen more often on a schedule determined by a dermatologist.

“Having had skin cancer is the biggest risk factor for developing skin cancer again in the future,” LeBlanc said.

Pale is the new tan

Don’t try to get dark. All tans damage the DNA in skin cells, LeBlanc said, which causes premature aging and increases the risk of skin cancer.

“Tanning in and of itself is a protective mechanism,” he said. “It’s your skin’s way of responding to damage, basically.”

Spray-on tans “give you the experience of having a tan,” LeBlanc said, and the spray can actually provide a little extra sun protection equivalent to an SPF (sun protection factor) of 2 to 3. While helpful, it’s not enough to forgo sunscreen.

Sunscreen

The easiest way to ensure your skin is protected is to regularly apply and reapply sunscreen.

Here’s LeBlanc’s tips for using sunscreen correctly:

  • Use a sunscreen rated at least SPF 30. It should be labeled both water-resistant and broad spectrum, which means that it protects against both types of ultraviolet rays — UVA and UVB.
  • Apply to dry skin 15 to 20 minutes before sun exposure.
  • Reapply regularly according to the label. LeBlanc recommends reapplying every three to four hours unless you are in and out of the water, then reapply more often.
  • Use plenty. Most Americans use too little sunscreen. Most people need to use at least an ounce, or about a shot glass full, of sunscreen lotion.
  • Spray sunscreen is easy to use, but be careful not to inhale the spray. Also, spray it on in a well-ventilated area shielded from wind. The wind could give you the “sunburned tiger” look because the spray was not applied evenly, LeBlanc said.