Ah, the warmth of the sun on your face. The glow of a tan from summers spent at the beach or on the water. The simple pleasure of soaking up some rays. Many of us love spending time outdoors in the sunshine. While some exposure to sunlight is important for our health and feelings of wellbeing, too much sun causes skin damage, premature aging, and can lead to a variety of skin cancers.
Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer. Skin cancers range from easily treated or removed small red, dry patches, to more serious melanoma, which can travel throughout the body and be fatal. Repeated removal of skin cancers, especially from the face, neck and upper chest, can lead to unsightly scarring.
While anyone's skin can be damaged by as little as 15 minutes of sun exposure, certain people are at greater risk for developing skin cancer. Factors that increase one's risk of developing skin cancer include: severe sunburns in younger years; sun exposure combined with smoking; a lighter natural skin color; skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun; indoor tanning; having blue or green eyes or blond or red hair. A family or personal history of skin cancer also increases risk of developing skin cancer. People with certain types and a large number of moles can develop melanoma. Regular skin examinations by your family doctor or a dermatologist are key to finding small removable cancers.
The good news is that nearly all skin cancers are preventable.
Here are some proven tips for reducing your chance of developing skin cancer:
- Recognize that skin is exposed to the sun all year long, not just during the summer. Sun is reflected off the water, snow, and even pavement, so multiple strategies are needed to protect your skin.
- Seek shade under an umbrella, tree or shelter, especially during the middle of the day when sun exposure is most intense.
- Use a hat, skirt, long sleeves, and sunglasses. For the most protection, wear a hat with a brim made from tightly woven fabric to shade your face, ears, and the back of your neck. (Avoid straw hats with holes!). Some clothing is certified to block damaging rays and given a sun protection factor (SPF) rating.
- Sunglasses protect your eyes and tender surrounding skin from UV ray damage and reduce the risk of cataracts.
- Sunscreen works best when combined with these other sun-safety options. Sunscreens are assigned a SPF number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. You should use a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater. Apply sunscreen every day before you go outside, putting a thick layer on all exposed skin. Use a spray sunscreen for hard-to-reach places like your back. Re-apply sunscreen after two hours in the sun and after swimming, sweating, or toweling off.
- All sunscreen products do not have the same ingredients; if your skin reacts badly to one product, try another one or ask your doctor for suggestions. Those labeled for use on the face or for babies, may be better tolerated.
- All adults should have regular total body skin checks to look for any worrisome spots.
Melanie Thomas, MD, FACP
Medical Oncologist, Duke Cancer Network
Clinical Associate, Duke University School of Medicine