Summer sun safety: How to avoid skin cancer

Summer is officially here, and many of us are enjoying outdoor activities and lots of time in the sun at the beach or pool. While sun exposure is important for many reasons – for example, production of Vitamin D, your mood and healthy circadian rhythms – our time in the sun can also be associated with a significant health risk: cancer.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common type of cancer in the U.S. is skin cancer, and the two most common types are basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. Both of these are serious and require prompt treatment, but survival rates are quite good with therapy. However, melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – has a far worse prognosis.

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It's estimated that almost 10,000 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. Researchers estimate that 5.4 million cases of nonmelanoma skin cancer, including basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma, were treated in the United States in 2012. This year, approximately 76,100 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed and treated – and close to 10,000 patients will die from melanoma.

It's important to note that 75 percent of all skin cancer deaths are from malignant melanoma. It's most commonly found among fair-skinned people, but people of all skin types can get it. There are pre-cancerous abnormalities that your dermatologist can detect during routine screening, and it's important to get regular skin exams. One of the most common pre-cancerous skin lesions is called an actinic keratosis, which are patches of thick, scaly or crusty skin. These are due to sun exposure as well and, if untreated, turn into squamous cell cancers about 20 percent of the time.

Since exposure to ultraviolet light – from the sun and tanning beds – is a major risk factor for melanoma and all other skin cancers and pre-cancers, wearing sunscreen should be top of the list as a prevention aid.

[See: 9 Surprising Facts About Sunscreen.]

Why Does Skin Cancer Develop in the First Place?

While we know that exposure to ultraviolet light is the culprit for most skin cancers, it's also important to understand exactly how this exposure can result in disease. Cancer of the skin occurs when the genetic code or DNA of skin cells is damaged by UV exposure and its associated radiation dose. In general, we think of a cancer as the uncontrolled growth of a particular type of cell. In the case of UV light exposure, the resultant genetic damage causes mutations that can allow for the uncontrolled growth of a particular type of skin cells, and when this occurs you develop cancer.

Skin Cancer Treatment

It's important to see a dermatologist on a yearly basis to have a comprehensive skin exam or if you notice a change in a mole or the development of a new skin abnormality. Most skin cancers can be treated and cured with local removal with either liquid nitrogen treatments or minor surgery. Some cancers – such as melanoma – may also require more extensive surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. However, early diagnosis and treatment is essential to improving all skin cancer outcomes. Additionally, removal of pre-cancerous lesions can be important to the progression of the disease over time.

[See: 7 Ways to Prevent Skin Cancer.]

Skin Cancer Prevention

The best way to prevent skin cancer in general is to cover up in the sun, plus wear sunscreen on exposed areas of skin. Choosing a sunscreen can be confusing, as there are many different types available over the counter. It's important to understand what the labels mean and what type of protection you're getting when you purchase a particular product.

Sunscreens prevent the sun's ultraviolet radiation from reaching the skin. There are two types of ultraviolet radiation: Ultraviolet A, or UVA, and Ultraviolet B, or UVB. These damage the skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. In addition, these rays also prematurely age your skin and increase your propensity for wrinkles. UVA is the longer wave UV ray that causes lasting skin damage and skin aging, and can cause skin cancer, as well. UVB is the shorter wave UV ray that causes sunburns and skin damage, and can cause skin cancer. Both of these forms of radiation are dangerous and must be avoided if at all possible.

It's important to note that sunscreens may vary greatly in their ability to protect against UVA and UVB. As a consumer, it's vital that you understand what you're buying and what type of protection the product you choose may or may not provide.

The Food and Drug Administration recently tightened restrictions on the labeling of commercially available sunscreen. For example, sunscreens may be labeled "broad-spectrum" if they provide protection against both UVA and UVB. And only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher may state that they help protect against skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures.

When preparing for a day in the sun, it's important to use broad-spectrum sunscreens in order to protect against skin cancer – by blocking both types of ultraviolet waves.

[See: What Causes Cancer? 5 Unlikely Claims Explained.]

However, it's also important to understand that sunscreen alone is not enough to protect your skin. It's essential to practice smart sun safety habits, whether at home or while on vacation, and to take care not to burn. Remember: Sunburn is a clear sign that the DNA in your skin cells has been damaged and, over time, this can lead to skin cancer. The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention recommends:

  1. Seek shade when the sun is at its strongest.

  2. Wear sun-protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat.

  3. Wear sunglasses.

  4. Avoid sun exposure in the heat of the day, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. when UV exposure risk is at its highest.

So, while summer affords us more time in the sun, make sure to protect yourself and your family from the potential dangers. Remember, sunscreen and shade are your best defense against the dangerous UV rays that cause cancer.

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