Summer is Around the Corner; protect your skin today.
Facts about skin cancer and the sun:
- Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S.
- More than 1 million cases of skin cancers are diagnosed annually; 62,500 of these will be melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer.
- Approximately 10,500 Americans will die from skin cancer this year, 8,400 of which will be from melanoma.
- The incidence of melanoma more than tripled among Caucasians between 1980 and 2001.
- Melanoma is more common than any non-skin cancer among women between 25 and 29 years old.
- Sunburns significantly increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
- UV rays are an officially recognized environmental carcinogen and are the most influential environmental factor related to skin cancer.
How does the sun damage skin?
- The sun releases energy in the form of heat and light; amongst these, the sun releases 3 types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA, UVB, and UVC.
- UVC rays are devastating to skin, but fortunately they are completely absorbed by the ozone layer.
- Some UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, but many still pass through. UVB rays are responsible for most sunburns and skin cancers.
- UVA rays pass entirely through the ozone layer and therefore make up the majority of the UV rays in the Earth’s atmosphere. These rays penetrate deeper into skin, are mainly responsible for tanning and the premature-aging of skin; they too can lead to skin cancer.
- Exposure to UV rays damages DNA within skin cells; the DNA controls the growth of these skin cells. With severe damage, as occurs with sunburns and prolonged exposure to UV rays, a normal skin cell will grow and reproduce in the uncontrolled and erratic way of a cancer cell.
What is the difference between a tan and sunburn?
- Both tanning and sunburns are forms of skin damage caused by UV ray exposure; they both indicate that DNA in the skin cells has been broken down.
- Tanning, the darkening of the skin, is a result of mainly UVA radiation. When skin is exposed to UV rays, cells called melanocytes produce the brown pigment melanin, which darkens the cells of the epidermis. Tanning is skin’s best line of defense against future UV damage. Unfortunately, the tan already indicates that sun damage has occurred.
- Sunburn, the reddening of the skin, is mainly a result of UVB radiation. The skin reddens because the blood vessels close to the skin’s surface have been damaged. This reddening may begin only minutes after exposure and can continue to worsen over the following 3 days.
Doesn’t the melanin acquired through tanning and sun exposure protect my skin from future sun damage?
- Darker skin offers protection from sunburns and skin cancer, but only when it is naturally darker skin. UV radiation attacks the skin’s DNA leading to genetic defects that cause skin cancer; therefore tanning is not an effective way to protect skin from sun damage.
What else does sun exposure do besides increase my risk of skin cancer?
- Photo-aging or premature-aging: long term exposure to the sun will cause the skin to become wrinkled, thick, and leathery. This normal aging process is accelerated by excessive sun exposure and can be prevented by avoiding the sun.
- Cataracts or other eye damage: cataracts occur as the lenses of the eye lose their transparency thus blurring the vision. UV radiation increases the chance of cataracts, and while they are treatable, they can lead to permanent blindness. UV radiation can also lead to tissue growth around the white of the eye, skin cancer around the eyes and damage to the retina, where the vision is the sharpest.
- Immune suppression: sunburns can change the distribution and function of white blood cells, the disease-fighting cells. Repeated exposure to UV radiation can cause long lasting damage to the body’s immune system thus reducing the body’s ability to fight skin cancer.
Am I exposed to UV rays on cloudy days when the sun is hidden?
- Yes, UVA and UVB rays easily pass through clouds and will damage skin on sunny and cloudy days alike.
- UV rays also reflect off surfaces like sand, water, cement and snow intensifying their effects.
Am I exposed to UV rays when I am in a tanning bed?
- Yes, tanning beds emit UV rays which is how they result in a tan. In fact, the DNA damage caused by tanning beds may be worse than the damage caused by the sun. There is no safe way to tan; except with sunless tanners.
What can I do to protect myself from the sun?
(Note: 1 of these precautions alone is not sufficient, try to do at least 2)
- Seek shade, especially from 10am-4pm when UV rays are the strongest and will be the most damaging to skin
- Cover as much of your body as possible (Find tightly woven yet lightweight clothing for optimal protection that will be the most comfortable – UV resistant clothing is available and is very effective and lightweight)
- Grab a hat with a wide brim to shade your face, head, ears and neck
- Grab sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays as possible – this will protect both your eyes and the sensitive skin around them
- Rub on sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher daily that blocks both UVA and UVB rays
- Limit time spent in the sun
What do I do if I get sunburned?
- Avoid further exposure from the sun; apply cool compresses to the area or take a cool bath; take pain relievers: ibuprofen, aspirin, acetaminophen; drink plenty of non-alcoholic fluids; apply aloe gel to soothe area
- See your health care clinician if: The burn is accompanied by fever, vomiting, drowsiness or confusion. Blisters form on large areas of the skin. Blisters break and appear infected. If your skin blisters from sun exposure DO NOT pop them, it is your skin’s way of healing and they should be left sealed.
Sunscreens Broken-down and Explained:
- What does SPF mean?
- Sun Protection Factor is a measure of a sunscreen’s ability to prevent UVB from damaging the skin.
- SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97%, and SPF 50 blocks 99%.
- SPF does not account for protection from UVA rays, look for a sunscreen that says broad spectrum so they protect your skin from both UVA and UVB rays.
- When should I put sunscreen on?
- Everyday, 30 minutes before exposure to the sun, on all parts of the body that will be exposed.
- Sunscreen should be reapplied at least every 2 hours.
- What type of sunscreen should I use?
- A Broad spectrum sunscreen offering protection against both UVA and UVB rays
- For everyday use: SPF 15 in a moisturizer is sufficient for brief exposure to the sun
- For extended outdoor time: a stronger water resistant sunscreen with a higher SPF will be necessary
What are the warning signs of melanoma or other skin cancers? The ABC’s of skin cancer:
- Asymmetry – if you draw a ling through the mole and the two halves do not match
- Border – borders of early melanoma tend to be uneven, scalloped or notched
- Color – having a variety of colors in one mole is a concern; such as shades of brown, tan, black, even red, blue etc.
- Diameter – larger than a pencil eraser (1/4 inch, 6 mm), but melanomas may be smaller when first detected
- Evolving – a change in size, shape, color, elevation or another trait; bleeding, itching or crusting is also a concern
Should I see a dermatologist to get my skin checked regularly?
- It is a good practice to have your skin checked annually; this is even more critical for people who are at a high risk for skin cancer due to their previous sun exposure or their coloring (fair skinned, freckles, and/or light eyes).
Skin Cancer Foundation, http://www.skincancer.org/
EPA UV Index Forecast Map, http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html
Center for Disease Control and Prevention, http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin/
National Cancer Institute, http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/types/melanoma
Sites to research various sunscreens for efficacy and toxicity: www.cosmeticsdatabase.com