Did you know that the most common type of cancer diagnosed in the U.S. is largely preventable? It is estimated that one in five Americans will have skin cancer over the course of their lifetimes. Fortunately, being sun-savvy may help keep this often-preventable cancer at bay.
When skin deep matters
The skin is the body's largest organ. It protects us against heat, sunlight, injury and infection. The ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun and from tanning beds can cause skin damage that can lead to cancer. While there are many types of skin cancers, the three most common are melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and basal cell carcinoma.
Melanoma begins in your pigment cells, or melanocytes. Of the three cancers, it is the most likely to spread to other parts of your body. Squamous cell skin cancer begins in your squamous cells, and sometimes spreads in the body. Basal cell skin cancer begins in the basal cell layer of your skin, but rarely spreads.
There are many risk factors common to these cancers. Sunlight is the most important risk factor for any type of skin cancer. Your lifetime exposure to UV rays is another factor. Also, tanning, or having fair (pale) skin that burns easily, ups your risk for any type of skin cancer.
Some risk factors are specific to skin cancer types. For example, one risk factor exclusive to melanoma is having many common moles — 50 or more. And old burns, scars, ulcers, or areas of inflammation on the skin may be a risk factor for both basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers.
Keeping the rays away
Following these eight tips may minimize your sun exposure to help reduce your risk of some types of skin cancer:
- Put lotion in motion. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. Your sunscreen should be SPF 15 or higher. If you will be swimming, use a waterproof type. Generously apply it to all exposed skin. The sun can harm skin in as few as 15 minutes. Be sure to use sunscreen on cloudy days, too, because UV rays can go through clouds.
- Apply sunscreen correctly. Be sure to put on enough sunscreen. The average adult needs about one ounce to cover their body. It works best when it's applied thickly. Apply it 30 minutes before going outside. Apply sunscreen on all exposed skin, including your ears. Put lip balm with SPF 15 or more on your lips. Reapply sunscreen every two hours and after swimming or sweating.
- Environmental awareness. Be extra careful around water, sand, cement and snow because the sun's rays can reflect off these surfaces. Note that UV radiation is stronger at higher altitudes and in warmer, southern climates.
- Timing is everything. Avoid the sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. This is when the sun is at its highest and its rays are strongest. If your shadow appears to be shorter than you are, retreat to the shade.
- Know your UV numbers. Check the UV index reported by the U.S. Weather Service through your local media. The UV index measures the amount of UV light reaching the ground and depends on the amount of cloud cover, time of day, time of year and elevation. The UV index ranges from 1 (low) to 11 (high). Be extra careful outside when the UV index is high.
- Cover up. Wear sunglasses with wraparound lenses that block UV rays. Wear protective clothing when you're outside, such as long sleeves, long pants, shirts with collars, and a hat, preferably with a wide brim. Loosely woven fabric (you can see light through it) is not as protective as tightly woven fabric.
- Avoid the tanning booth and sunlamps. Ultraviolet light from tanning beds can cause skin cancer. If you want to look tan, consider using a self-tanning product or spray, but continue to use sunscreen with it.
- Watch yourself. If you notice any new or changing spots on your skin, see your doctor promptly. In general, the earlier skin cancer is detected, the more likely it is to respond to treatment.
Created on 11/05/1999
Updated on 06/25/2013
- American Academy of Dermatology. Understanding skin cancer.
- National Institutes of Health. Cancer Institute. Skin cancer.
- Environmental Protection Agency. UV index.