It’s summertime, which probably means you and your family are spending some time in the sun. Enjoy the outdoors but take care to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. Sustained exposure to direct sunlight can damage the skin over time and result in skin cancer.
Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, impacting millions each year. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, it is estimated that one out of five Americans will get skin cancer in their lifetimes. The good news is that skin cancer is highly preventable with the right precautions. It is also usually quite treatable when caught early enough.
What is Skin Cancer?
Skin, the human body’s largest organ, is comprised of several layers. The two main layers are the epidermis and dermis. The epidermis is the upper, outer layer of skin that is visible. The dermis is the lower, or inner, layer of skin.
The epidermis contains three types of cells:
- Squamous: Thin cells that form the top layer of the epidermis
- Basal: These are the cells underneath the squamous cells
- Melanocytes: These cells are in the lower part of the epidermis. They make melanin, which is what gives the skin its pigment.
Cancer can begin in any of these three types of skin cells. Squamous and basal skin cancers are most common. Both can usually be removed and cured. Melanoma is the third-most common type of skin cancer. It is more serious, because this form of cancer can spread to other organs in the body. If not caught and treated early enough, it can be deadly.
Causes & Risk Factors
Some people are at greater risk for skin cancer due to genetics. People at heightened risk include:
- People with fairer, lighter skin
- People with freckles or skin that reddens easily
- Blue or green eyes
- People with blonde or red hair
- A family history of skin cancer
- Older age
- Having a large number of skin moles
Even if you do not have any of these risk factors, you can still get skin cancer, however.
The main cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. UV rays do provide some benefits to the human body. For example, sunlight is our main source of vitamin D. When it comes to UV rays, however, it is easy to get too much of a good thing.
There are three types of UV rays:
- UVA rays penetrate the skin and are responsible for premature aging signs, such as wrinkles and spots.
- UVB rays primarily affect the surface of the skin, causing sunburn. Most UVB rays never reach the surface of the earth, as they are absorbed in the planet’s ozone layer.
- UVC rays are completely absorbed by the ozone layer, so we don’t have to worry about them.
The sun is the only natural source of UV rays. Manmade sources of UV rays include tanning beds and some types of lighting and lasers.
“The biggest contributors to skin cancer are sunlight and artificial sources of UV rays like tanning beds,” explains Dr. Jeffrey Moore, am internal medicine physician. “The good news is that you can dramatically reduce your risk of skin cancer by consistently taking some simple precautions.”
Preventing Skin Cancer
The most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of skin cancer is to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful rays. You can do this by:
- Reducing the amount of time you spend in the sun
- Staying in the shade as much as possible when you are outside
- Wearing loose-fitting clothing that covers your skin
- Wearing a broad-brimmed hat to protect your head, face and neck
- Using sunscreen
All about Sunscreen
The key to beating back those UV rays is a good sunscreen. There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and physical. A chemical sunscreen works by absorbing UV rays, with their active ingredients acting as a sponge. A physical sunscreen serves as a barrier to the UV rays, deflecting them much like a shield would deflect an arrow. Some people with sensitive skin may opt for this type of sunscreen.
Sunscreens are classified by their Sun Protection Factor (SPF). It is recommended you use a sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, which will block 97% of UVB rays. The higher the SPF, the more protection the sunscreen provides, but an SPF of 60 is not twice as protective as an SPF of 30 and no sunscreen can block 100% of the sun’s UVB rays.
When outdoors, reapply sunscreen every two hours and if you are swimming, reapply sunscreen every time you get out of the water. It’s important to keep in mind that a higher SPF does not mean the sunscreen lasts longer – you must reapply sunscreen every two hours, regardless of the SPF.
The U.S. Food and drug Administration (FDA) requires that all sunscreens maintain their effectiveness for at least three years. If you have some sunscreen in the cabinet from last year, check the expiration date before you use it. If it is out of date, throw it away and buy some more.
Be generous when applying sunscreen! Most people don’t use near enough of it. It’s also easy to forget about parts of your body that need to be protected – it’s not just your limbs, back and chest. You should apply sunscreen to every exposed area of skin, including your feet, hands and head. Your lips can also be harmed by the sun, so using lipstick or lip balm with SPF is a good idea, as well. Remember there is no problem with using sunscreen and insect repellant at the same time. Insect repellant lasts longer, so there is not a need to reapply it as frequently as sunscreen.
For babies and toddlers, it is best to minimize their time in the sun and protect them with loose-fitting clothing, a hat and sunglasses when they are outside. Sunscreen should generally not be used for babies under 6 months of age.
Using sunscreen consistently and correctly is one of the most important things you can do to prevent sunburn and long-term skin damage, including skin cancer.
Avoid Indoor Tanning
No one should ever use a tanning bed. Indoor tanning facilities subject people to dangerously high levels of UV rays and can cause permanent damage to the skin and the eyes. Additionally, some 3,000 people each year end up at the hospital due to accidents and burns from indoor tanning facilities.
Signs of Skin Cancer & Treatment
A change in your skin’s appearance is a possible sign of skin cancer. Changes to look out for include a new mole, growth or sore that does not go away. Any time you notice something like this, you should see your doctor and have it checked out.
Melanomas – the most dangerous form of skin cancer – are irregular in their symmetry, color and border. They tend to be larger than the size of a pea and their appearance will evolve. If you spot anything on your skin with any of these characteristics, see your doctor immediately.
If your doctor believes a skin growth is suspicious, she or her will remove it and then have it biopsied to determine if it was cancerous. In the event of a cancerous growth, especially a melanoma, your physician may conduct additional tests to determine if the cancer has spread.
Stay Safe in the Sun!
Summer is the time for fun in the sun – just be sure to take the proper precautions so you don’t regret it later on. By moderating your sun exposure using plenty of sunscreen that is at least 30 SPF, you can protect yourself and your family from a painful sunburn tomorrow – and a dangerous skin cancer years from now.
And if you discover a new or suspicious-looking growth or sore on your skin, get it checked out by your doctor as soon as possible. If it is cancerous, the sooner it is treated, the better off you will be.
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