What fits like a glove and lasts a lifetime, even though we color, decorate, ornament, perfume, and expose it to harsh conditions? Is found in a variety of textures and shades? And, is the largest organ in the body? You’re right, the skin.

Skin is a living, breathing barrier which acts as the first line of protection against diseases, invading bacteria, and viruses. It also helps regulate body temperature, and stores water and fat.

The question is, considering the importance of skin, how well do you take care of yours? Do you treat it like you want it to last a lifetime? Do you protect it from the elements? Do you eat good foods to nourish it and drink enough water to replenish what you lose through sweat and dehydration? If your skin is dry, leathery, wrinkled, scaly, or has red irritated patches, then you probably aren’t doing all that you should to protect and preserve it.

Problems of the skin

One of the biggest enemies to our skin is the sun. Gone are the days when we can lace a bottle of baby oil with iodine and use it as an aid for a faster tan (or usually a burn). The message has become an urgent one: overexposure to the sun is the major culprit in a number of diseases and the numberone cause of skin cancer. Today we know that the sun can harm us, but do we really do all that we can to protect ourselves from it? If you are still a sun worshipper, here are some facts you need to know.

We say someone with a tan “looks healthy.” Even if we grant that as a valid premise, at the same time we must acknowledge that years later the results of overexposure can cause serious diseases, as well as unhealthy-looking skin. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun and from artificial tanning lights might cause an immediate sunburn, but the serious damage may not show up for decades when the skin develops unsightly red patches with blemishes, premature aging sets in, cataracts and other eye problems develop, skin cancers manifest, and a weakened immune system continues to deteriorate health. Also, sunlight can aggravate existing diseases such as lupus erythematosus, porphyria, herpes simplex, rosacea, vitiligo, and dermatomyositis. Unfortunately, for most of us, the sun damage was done in our youth before we knew the harm we were causing.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, skin cancer is the most-commonly diagnosed cancer in the United States. The majority of cases are from basal cell cancer, squamous cell cancer, and melanoma.

Basal cell cancer. Basal cell cancer that develops on the head, neck, and hands accounts for about 75 percent of skin cancers. It is the most common skin cancer found in Caucasians. Although it was once considered a disease of middle-aged or older people, this cancer is on the rise in younger people, probably because of too much sun exposure.

Squamous cell cancer. About 20 percent of skin cancers are of the squamous cell type, which occurs on areas of the body always exposed to the sun, such as face, ears, neck, lips, and hands. The tumors may appear as nodules or as red, scaly patches. It can also manifest in skin lesions such as ulcers and scars. Again this cancer is most commonly found in Caucasians. Squamous cell cancers are more aggressive and may develop into large masses and invade structures beneath the skin or spread to other parts of the body. There are an estimated 2,300 deaths from nonmelanoma skin cancers every year.

Melanoma. The most dangerous of skin cancers is melanoma, which develops in cells that produce the pigment known as melanin. Because melanoma cells continue producing melanin, these tumors are often shades of brown and black. Melanoma is more likely than the other types to metastasize (spread) to other parts of the body. Once this occurs, there is a higher mortality rate, an estimated 6,900 deaths every year in America. Although found more in persons with fairer skin, people with dark brown or black skin can develop melanoma on the palms of the hands, soles of the feet, under the nails, or in the mouth. Although melanoma accounts for only about 5 percent of skin cancers, it causes 75 percent of the deaths.

“Early detection can lead to effective treatment of 80-85 percent of patients with melanoma,” according to Dr. Jill O’Donnell-Tormey, executive director of the Cancer Research Institute.

“The highest melanoma rates occur among light-skinned populations in areas of intense sunlight,” for example Arizona, according to Mary C. Fraser, R.N., M.A., and Patricia Hartge, Sc.D., of the Environmental Epidemiology Branch, Division of Cancer Etiology, National Cancer Institute in Bethesda, Md.

The National Cancer Institute “SEER (Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results) Cancer Statistics Review 1973-1993” shows the cancer mortality rates by state for 1989-93 for all races, both male and female, to be the highest in Delaware, Utah, Vermont, Nevada, and Massachusetts. The lowest areas are Michigan, Mississippi, North Dakota, Hawaii, and the District of Columbia.

Protection for the skin

James H. Sternberg, M.D., Assistant Clinical Professor of Dermatology, UCLA Medical School, says, “Wear sunblock diligently – religiously. Stay out of the sun. The sun is the major culprit that you can control. Limit your sun exposure to nil.” Sternberg also warns, “Avoid tanning booths, which add to sun damage.” He commented that if you feel you have to have a tan, then use the natural tanners – natural creams and lotions that color the skin to make you look browner without putting you at risk.

The use of sunscreens and sunblocks are an important barrier between the skin and harmful ultraviolet rays. UVA rays damage the skin and cause wrinkling, loss of elasticity, and skin discoloration while high-energy UVB rays cause sunburns. (UVC rays are stopped at the outer stratosphere.)

Sunscreens are available in creams, lotions, gels, wax sticks, and sprays. These products come in a range of protection varieties with SPF (sun protection factor) blocks from 2 to 45 – the higher the number, the longer one can stay in the sun. Experts recommend broad-spectrum (which includes a sun-blocking agent) SPF of at least 15 in applications of about one ounce for the average-size person, with reapplications as needed.

J. Michael Wentzell, M.D., a dermatologist, recommends that an SPF of 30 is superior to 15, but that any higher number may cause contact and photocontact dermatitis. Additionally, the higher SPF value can be irritating to existing conditions such as lupus erythematosus andatopic dermatitis.

Every individual has his or her own unique needs and reactions to sunscreen formulations. Any substance can cause an allergic reaction or irritation, which is true of chemical as well as natural sunscreens, so it is important to read the label. If you have a particular sensitivity to a plant source in a natural sunscreen, you can find other products that do not contain that ingredient. It is always best to do a patch test on a small area before you lather on any new product.

Some ingredients found in chemical sunscreens that are most commonly-known to cause allergic reactions or irritations on sensitive people are: “waterproof” or “water-resistant formulations;” PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid) and PABA esters (padimate 0, padimate A, glyceryl PABA); cinnamates (octyl methoxycinnamate, octocrylene, which is not water soluble, cinoxate); and benzophenones (oxybenzone, dioxybenzone, sulisobenzone), which are easily removed with water.

The physical agents titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and red petrolatum can be messy and visible after application and may cause folliculitis (an inflammatory reaction in the hair follicles) and miliaria (not allowing sweat to come out through the skin), although all-natural cosmetic manufacturers often swear by titanium dioxide and zinc oxide – so the jury’s out on these two. Those allergic to PABA may find they have respiratory allergies or photosensitivity to the coloring agent pphenylenediamine and/or the local anesthetic benzocaine found in post-sun and sunburn-soothing products. Many natural sunscreens eliminate most, or all, of the above ingredients.

T.L.C. for the skin

A healthful, balanced diet is the best thing you can do for yourself. It is believed that foods rich in beta-carotene, such as carrots, spinach, cantaloupe, and sweet potatoes, may reduce the risk of certain cancers, although there is no evidence that beta-carotene provides UVR protection. It certainly can’t hurt to include more dark leafy green, red, yellow, and orange fruits and vegetables in your diet, which would provide a good supply of many carotenoids. At any rate, these foods are good for your skin – inside and out.

Drinking plenty of water helps to keep your skin hydrated. Although eight glasses is suggested, that amount could differ with each individual, the difference too little water makes is obvious in the appearance of the skin.

Take time to use moisturizers, especially after using soap. Apply your sunscreen next, underneath your make-up base. These products will help protect your skin from pollutants in the air as well as from overexposure. Pay special attention to dry spots and red patches or scaly areas. Don’t let these get out of control, and keep an eye out for changes that could indicate precancerous conditions.

Warm baths are a way to relax and renew yourself physically and mentally. Many find the responses aromatherapy triggers to be healing and restorative, so they choose essential oils, herbs, and mineral salts for additions to their bath water.

Because there are so many essential oils, and individual reactions may vary, try different aromas until you find what is pleasing and beneficial for you. According to one natural suncare products company, rose oil, marigold, ylang-ylang, carrot seed oil, neroli, German chamomile, immortelle, and lavender are purported to have properties especially beneficial for skin.