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Sun Safe: Prevent Skin Cancer

If you greet the sun with open arms and an upturned face, wear long-sleeves, a hat, and sunglasses

Exposure to intense summer sun increases the risk of skin cancer, the most commonly diagnosed cancer in the US. Skin cancer is most curable when found and treated early—but you can prevent skin cancer with simple sun safety practices.

Overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause painful sunburns. It can also lead to a more serious health problem—skin cancer. Most people are not aware that skin cancer, while largely preventable, is the most common form of cancer in the United States.

What Is Skin Cancer?

The two most common types of skin cancer—basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas—are highly curable, but can be disfiguring. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous and causes the most deaths. More than 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in this country each year. Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, will account for more than 76,000 cases of new skin cancer in 2014. New Hampshire and Vermont have the fourth (VT) and fifth (NH) highest rankings of the number of people in the nation at risk for being diagnosed with melanoma's of the skin.

The Guide to the Sun's Rays

Most cases of the three types of skin cancer are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Ultraviolet (UV) rays are an invisible radiation that comes from the sun, tanning beds, and sunlamps. UV rays can penetrate and change skin cells. There are three types of UV rays:

  • UVA is the most common kind of sunlight at the earth's surface. It reaches beyond the top layer of human skin. Scientists believe that UVA rays can damage connective tissue and increase a person's risk of skin cancer.
  • Most UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer and less common at the earth's surface. UVB rays help produce vitamin D in the skin. UVB rays don't reach as far into the skin as UVA rays, but they can still be damaging.
  • UVC rays are very dangerous, but they are absorbed by the ozone layer and do not reach the ground.
Risk factors for skin cancer

Although everyone should protect their skin, people who need to be especially careful about exposure to the sun's UV rays are those who have:

  • Pale skin
  • Blond, red, or light brown hair
  • Been treated for skin cancer
  • A family member who's had skin cancer

Some medications may increase sun sensitivity. Ask your health care professional about sun precautions if you are on medications.

Reduce Time in the Sun

Skin cancer is most curable when it's found and treated early, but it can be prevented by practicing sun safety. It's important to limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the sun's rays are strongest. Stay in the shade as much as possible throughout the day. Even on an overcast day, up to 80 percent of the sun's UV rays can get through the clouds.

Cover up with Clothing

Wear clothes that protect your body as much as possible. Wear a wide-brimmed hat, long sleeves, and pants. Sun-protective clothing is also available. Consider using an umbrella for shade.

Apply Sunscreen Generously and Frequently

Check product labels to make sure you buy sunscreen with a "sun protection factor" (SPF) of 30, and look for products that offer broad spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Apply the recommended amount evenly to all uncovered skin, especially your lips, nose, ears, neck, hands, and feet. Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going out in the sun. If you don't have much hair, apply sunscreen to the top of your head. Reapply at least every two hours, and after swimming or sweating.

Apply sunscreen to children older than six months every time they go out. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children under six months avoid sun exposure and be dressed in lightweight long pants, long-sleeved shirts, and brimmed hats. A pediatrician can tell you whether to use sunscreen on a child under six months.

Protect the Eyes

Sunlight reflecting off sand or water further increases exposure to UV radiation and increases your risk of developing eye problems. When buying sunglasses, look for a label that specifically offers 99 to 100 percent UV protection.

Check your skin regularly

The best time to do a skin check is after a shower or bath. Find a room with plenty of light. Use a full-length mirror and a hand-held mirror. Learn where your birthmarks, moles, and other marks are and how they usually look and feel.

Check for anything new:

  • A new mole (that looks different from your other moles)
  • A new red or darker colored flaky patch that may be a little raised
  • A new flesh-colored firm bump
  • A change in the size, shape, color, or feel of a mole
  • A sore that doesn't heal

Check for changes:

  • In the appearance of an old growth or scar (especially a scar resulting from a burn).
  • A patch of skin that is a different color and becomes darker or changes color
  • A dark band in your nail that begins to spread

Check yourself from head to toe:

  • Look at your face, neck, ears, and scalp. You may want to move your hair with a comb or a blow dryer so that you can see better. Or, ask a relative or friend to check through your hair.
  • Look at the front and back of your body in the mirror. Then, raise your arms and look at your left and right sides.
  • Bend your elbows. Look carefully at your fingernails, palms, forearms (including the undersides), and upper arms.
  • Examine the back, front, and sides of your legs. Also look around your genital area and between your buttocks.
  • Sit and closely examine your feet, including your toenails, your soles, and the spaces between your toes.

By checking your skin regularly, you'll learn what is normal for you. It may be helpful to record the dates of your skin exams and to write notes or take pictures about the way your skin looks. If you find anything unusual, see your doctor.

Know the risks associated with indoor tanning

Recent research has found that early exposure to the ultraviolet radiation lamps used for indoor tanning is related to an increased risk of developing basal cell carcinomas (BCC) at a young age. Read more: "Young Indoor Tanning Increases Early Risk of Skin Cancer: Early exposure puts adolescents and young adults at risk for basal cell carcinomas."

Read more about Norris Cotton Cancer Center's Melanoma/Skin Cancer Program.

Sources: FDA, CDC, NCI

July 21, 2014