Dr. Z, Sun God

UCI's Dr. Christopher Zachary gives the sun what-for

It was Nelly who once opined: "It's getting hot in herre, so take off all your clothes." Tempting suggestion, Nelly, but are you going to pay for our skin cancer treatments? Are you, Nelly? Because I believe you may be forgetting about the harmful effects of the sun's ultraviolet rays on the skin. And, no, a Band-Aid is not effective protection. Before any of you go about dropping trou, you might want to consult with your local dermatologist. For us, that's Dr. Christopher Zachary, who for the past two decades has been professor and chair of the UCI Department of Dermatology and has made it his business to give the sun what for.

OC Weekly:What kind of skin care issues do people need to be particularly aware of during the summer?

Dr. Christopher Zachary:Skin cancer is the most common cancer known to man and is treated at the cost of billions of dollars a year in this country. People might not realize that there is a significant mortality factor with skin cancer. Our children are particularly at risk. Fifty percent of our lifetime sun exposure comes during childhood. As parents, we have a responsibility to ensure that our children are properly dressed for the sun. We need to get children into the regular habit of applying sunblock appropriately as we would get them into the habit of brushing their teeth.

Photo by Tenaya Hills. Model: Jaimee Brant
Photo by Tenaya Hills. Model: Jaimee Brant

Humans have existed outdoors for some time prior to the invention of sunblock, but it seems to me that concern over skin cancer has only been expressed in the last several decades. Are there environmental factors at work that may be increasing the risk of exposure, or has science just recently gotten around to recognizing the problem?

Well, you have to add in the aspect of longevity. People are living longer now, so there's more chance that skin cancer will manifest itself later in their lives. Prior to the '60s, you have to realize that fair skin was considered the beauty standard for women. When they would go out in the sun, they would shade themselves with parasols. It really wasn't until the middle of the last century that people began to sun themselves recreationally, and that, combined with the increase in longevity, has led to more occurrences of skin cancer.

A little bit of sun exposure is healthy, right? How much sun is too much sun?

It's important for people to realize that they should go out and enjoy the weather in California. They're here for a good reason. There are some dermatologists out there who are going to think I'm a bit of a heretic, but I think it's good that we have a little sunshine. However, you have to balance that with the fact that excess UVB rays do cause skin cancer.

So if people want to get their daily dose of sunshine, but at the same time minimize their risk for skin cancer, what should they do?

Use a sunblock with an SPF of at least 30 that offers both UVA and UVB protection. Put it on a half an hour before you go into the sun and reapply it throughout the day, particularly if you find yourself in the water a lot. Wear a wide-brimmed hat that protects the face, neck and ears, and avoid being in the sun during the middle of the day when it's at its height.

If you notice that your skin is beginning to look like Granddad's wallet, what are your options?

Well, nothing works as well as a chemical peel or carbon dioxide resurfacing. The dermatology department here at UCI is doing some seminal work on devices that are going to induce very significant improvements in the texture and tone of the skin with much less downtime than the current technology.

What is the worst case of sun damage that you have seen in your professional career?

I've seen otherwise very healthy people look 20 years older than they are due to excessive sun exposure. I've had to remove noses, ears, lips, half the scalp. I've treated literally hundreds of patients whose lives have been totally ruined by skin cancer as a result of sun exposure.

What are your summer plans?

I'm going to be taking my family to Europe. I shall be very careful to take my sunblock with me. But to be honest, I'm not always as careful as I should be. I'm just a regular guy out there, but I have to remind myself that this is an obligation. One should lead by example, but even those who should know better forget on occasion. But when I go out on the weekend, forget to apply my sunblock, and get a little sun, on Monday morning, my nurses will give me hell.

 
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