Exposure to the sun is known for its vitamin D benefits. Research suggests that brief exposure of the face, hands, and arms of about 15 minutes a day three times a week is sufficient. However, prolonged exposure to the sun for whatever reason could be dangerous as the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage the DNA in the skin, which then causes abnormal growth of skin cells. This condition is called skin cancer.
Depending on the type of cell damaged, skin cancer can be classified as squamous cell carcinoma or basal cell carcinoma—collectively called nonmelanoma skin cancer– the most common skin cancer type. A less common type of this disease called melanoma skin cancer is the one that forms in the melanocytes (a cell found beneath the epidermis that produces melanin) instead.
In the United States, skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. According to the American Academy of Dermatology Association (AAD), one in five Americans is estimated to develop this disease in their lifetime. Every day, approximately 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer and almost 20 die from melanoma.
To reduce the risk of this disease, it helps to protect the skin against UV rays from the sun as well as artificial sources like tanning beds and sunlamps during the first 18 years. Doing this can reduce skin cancer risk by up to 78% according to a study. This should not be done only during summer, but all year because UV rays can reach your skin even on cool or cloudy days and reflect off the cement, sand, water, snow, and other surfaces.
Practical tips to prevent skin cancer
Since excessive exposure to UV light is the risk factor easiest to prevent, AAD encourages observing the following:
- Apply a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen
A broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF (sun protection factor) 30 or higher protects the skin from both UVA and UVB rays. Whether it is a sunny or cloudy day, sunscreen should be applied appropriately, especially on the neck, ear, hand, and other body parts that remain uncovered after wearing clothes. When outdoors, sunscreen application every two hours or after swimming or sweating is necessary.
One study indicated that applying sunscreen helps prevent actinic keratoses (scaly patches that appear on the skin after excessive sun exposure) that sometimes develop into squamous cell carcinoma.
- Wear sun-protective clothing
During summer, wearing lightweight pants and a long-sleeved shirt is a perfect way to avoid sun exposure. Some clothes are built with an ultraviolet protection factor. Wear a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses with UV protection whenever possible to protect the head and the eyes.
- Stay in the shade
In the U.S., UV rays from the sun are strongest from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. during standard time and from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. during daylight saving time. When going out, always walk under the shade whenever possible. This should be observed more strictly for children, as severe sunburns at this age result in a greater risk of melanoma than adults.
- Avoid indoor tanning
Indoor tanning that uses tanning beds and sunlamps exposes one’s skin to high levels of UV rays. Eventually, this may lead to skin cancer, premature skin aging, and even accidents and burns. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 3,000 people go to the emergency room annually due to accidents and burns in tanning rooms.
To those who want to look tan, consider using a safer option—self-tanning products. These products contain a coloring agent called DHA (dihydroxyacetone), which causes browning on the dead cell layer of the skin when it reacts with amino acids in the skin. Since they do not have sun-protection effects, it is advisable to use sunscreen while using them.
Even if a tan looks good on the skin, it does not mean it is good for the health. The skin produces melanin (a brown pigment that gives skin its color) due to an injury when the UV rays reach the inner layer of the skin.
In addition to avoiding exposure to intense levels of UV rays, there are other ways to minimize the risks of skin cancer.
- Perform regular self-check
If a person has lighter skin, a family history of skin cancer, prevalent moles, weakened immune system, or experienced a lot of sunburns or heavy exposure to UV rays, he has a higher risk of skin cancer than others. Therefore, a regular self-check is necessary to watch for signs of the disease. About half of melanoma cases were diagnosed after self-checks. The Skin Cancer Foundation also reported that a study in The Journal of the National Cancer Institute suggested that skin self-exams can potentially reduce the melanoma mortality rate by up to 63%.
Some skin cancer signs include mole changes (in terms of color, shape, and size), skin lesions, new growth on the skin, and an open sore that does not heal for several weeks. If any of these signs show up, AAD advises seeing a board-certified dermatologist.
AAD also recommends checking the moles’ ABCDEs for symptoms of melanoma.
- Asymmetry – Half of the mole appears different from the other half.
- Borders – Moles appear irregular or poorly defined
- Color – Moles that have different colors, including shades of tan, brown, and black. On rare occasions, moles can also turn red, white, or blue.
- Diameters – Moles as large as the size of a pencil eraser or even larger
- Evolving – If the mole or skin lesion changed in terms of color, size, or shape.
- Get an annual check-up
As part of a complete skin cancer early detection strategy, annual visits to dermatologists are recommended. According to The Journal of the American Medical Association, melanomas can be detected by physicians at an earlier stage, where they can be easily cured. The frequency of the visit may be subject to change, depending on the risk factors that the patients have.
Seeing an expert is also a good opportunity for patients to get valuable advice regarding proper self-checks and learn unfamiliar terms related to skin cancer.