Did you know that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States? With summer upon us, it's important to remember that overexposure to the sun may have harmful side effects, including increasing your risk of skin cancer. Although some skin cancers are slow to spread and often respond to treatment, others are difficult to treat and may have lasting, even lethal consequences. Understanding the risks is the first step in making informed lifestyle changes that may help you lower your chances of developing skin cancer.
What are the risks?
UV exposure: The greatest risk for skin cancer comes from exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight, sunlamps and tanning beds. The greater the exposure, the greater the risk. Interestingly, although the rates of melanoma are higher in the Southeast, where the sun is strong, some of the highest melanoma rates in the United States are found in the Northwest. This should be a stark reminder that overcast skies do not protect against UV rays, and protecting your skin even on cloudy days is critical.
Fair skin: The American Cancer Society reports that melanoma is more than 20 times more common in white people than African Americans. The risk is also higher in individuals with blond or red hair, blue or green eyes, or skin that burns or freckles easily.
Age: Although skin cancer risk increases as you age, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially women. People who have had at least one severe (blistering) sunburn as a child, or used sunlamps or tanning beds before age 30, also have an increased risk.
Because it is virtually impossible to go through life with no sun exposure, everyone is at risk. But there are several steps you can take to protect yourself from the sun and help reduce your chances of developing skin cancer. They include:
Use sunscreen. Apply one ounce (two tablespoons) of sunscreen to all exposed areas 30 minutes before outdoor activities. Cover areas like the back of the ears and neck, and the tops of the feet and hands. If you are bald, applying it to your scalp is also important. Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB rays, with an SPF of 30 or higher. Reapply every two hours, especially after swimming or sweating. It's also important to remember that sunscreen should be used on babies over the age of six months.
Cover up: The sun's UV rays are most intense between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If you work outdoors, tightly woven clothes provide the best sun protection. Sunglasses, wide-brimmed hats and hats with material that covers the back of the neck also help protect sensitive skin on the neck, face and around the eyes.
Wear sun-safe swimwear: Look for bathing suits that cover more skin, such as swim shirts, one-piece suits and long shorts. Many children now wear swim shirts or t-shirts while at the pool or beach, but these are also a good idea for adults.
Closely examine your skin: Regular, thorough skin examinations are important, especially if you have a large number of moles or other blemishes. While this will not prevent skin cancer from developing, exams can help detect the disease in the early stages. Always tell your doctor if you see any new, unusual or changing moles or growths on your skin, and it's a good idea to have a professional skin exam at least once a year.