For many, there’s nothing better than the summer season. Whether it's soaking up the delightful…
One of the biggest myths about skin cancer is that it’s really only caused by getting major sunburns. It’s true that having several blistering sunburns increases your risk for skin cancers like melanoma, but so do the UV rays hitting your arm when you take a road trip, or the sun exposure you get every time you walk your dog. Every little bit of sunshine on your skin increases your risk for cancer, as well as wrinkled, aging skin. The good news? You can lower your risk and prevent skin cancer by using a few simple strategies regularly.
This month, we’re sharing skin cancer causes, risk factors, and prevention strategies to keep your skin healthy this summer and all year-round.
What causes skin cancer?
Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis, which is the topmost layer of skin. Damaged DNA in the skin cells triggers mutations that cause the cells to multiply rapidly, creating cancerous tumors. The three most common types of skin cancer are basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), and melanoma.
The main cause of skin cancer is your total lifetime exposure to UV rays, either from the sun or from a tanning bed. While most skin cancers develop on areas of the body that have had sun exposure, skin cancer can occur anywhere on the body, including the nail beds and in the eye. Up to 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers are the result of UV exposure.
While prevention strategies cannot prevent all incidences of skin cancer, taking precautions can lower your risk of developing it significantly.
As an added bonus, the steps that you take to prevent skin cancer can also reduce the signs of premature aging, like sunspots, wrinkles, and fine lines. People who use sunscreen with SPF 15 or higher every day have 24% less skin aging than those who don’t use sunscreen daily.
Skin cancer risk factors
A risk factor is something that increases your chances of developing a certain kind of cancer. However, the presence of multiple risk factors does not guarantee that you will develop skin cancer, nor does an absence of risk factors mean that you won’t develop skin cancer. Some factors that correlate with higher incidences of skin cancer are:
- Lifetime sun exposure – a history of sunburns and total time spent in the sun contribute to the likelihood of developing skin cancer
- A tendency to develop moles
- Fair skin that reddens, burns, and freckles easily
- Blonde, red, or light brown hair
- Blue or green eyes
- Past incidences of skin cancer
- Family history of skin cancer – melanoma, in particular, can run in families
- A weakened immune system from other medical conditions
- Conditions that make you more sensitive to the sun
Skin cancer prevention strategies
Preventing skin cancer isn’t complicated, it just takes a little planning and practice to make it second nature. Our top five tips for preventing skin cancer are:
1. Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen every day
A broad-spectrum sunscreen is one that protects from both UVA and UVB rays. Wearing at least SPF 15 every day prevents up to 40% of squamous cell carcinomas and reduces your melanoma risk by 50%. Sunscreen should be part of your daily skincare routine, even when it’s cloudy, because about 80% of the sun’s rays can still pass through clouds, and most windows do not block UV rays.
Most people do not apply enough sunscreen to get adequate coverage, so make sure that you apply about one ounce of sunscreen to your entire body, which is about the size of a shot glass. Don’t forget to put sunscreen on the back of your hands, which is a common place to develop basal and squamous carcinomas. You can also find many lip balms that have SPF to protect your lips.
2. Avoid being outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
In the middle of the day, when the sun is directly overhead, its rays are the strongest. That means you can burn quicker than at other times of the day. The sun has two types of rays, UVA which penetrate deep into the skin and cause aging, and UVB that affect the surface of the skin and cause sunburns. Being out when the UV index is high exposes your skin to more of both types of UV rays.
If you have to be outside during the middle of the day, seek shade as often as possible. If you’re eating lunch on a restaurant patio, choose a table with an umbrella. Try to walk on the shady side of the street and sit under a tree at the park. Shade isn’t a perfect solution, though. Sunlight filters through leaves and many umbrellas do not block UV light completely either.
3. Never use a tanning bed
Did you know that the lights in tanning beds emit UV radiation that’s 10 to 15 times higher than the sun at its peak intensity? According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, using a tanning bed before age 35 increases your risk of developing melanoma by 75%. The risk is simply too great to use a tanning bed, even once! If you’re determined to have bronzed skin, choose one of the many sunless tanning creams or sprays available today so you can get the look without the damage.
4. Wear UPF clothing when you’re outdoors
Many people don’t apply sunscreen because they don’t want to stop what they’re doing to reapply, or they simply lose track of time and forget to slather more on every two hours. UPF clothing is a great option for people who don’t want to worry about refreshing their sun lotion throughout the day because UPF clothing’s effectiveness does not wear off over time.
UPF stands for ultraviolet protection factor, and it’s a system of measuring how much UV light an article of clothing blocks. For example, a UPF rating of 50 means that only 1/50th of the sun’s rays can get through the fabric to reach your skin. You can find many long-sleeved shirts, pants, hats, and more that provide hassle-free protection for your skin.
5. Perform regular skin cancer self-exams
Many types of skin cancer are very treatable if found early, so your best line of defense is yourself. Set a reminder on your calendar to perform a self-check every month. We have a simple eight-step guide that you can use to make sure you perform your skin cancer self-exam thoroughly. You should also see your dermatologist at least once a year, and more often if you have a history of skin cancer, for a professional skin exam. The sooner you find and treat skin cancer, the better your prognosis.
Skin cancer prevention is easy!
No single method of skin protection is foolproof, so we recommend using more than one of our strategies, or all of them. While you can’t completely eliminate your risk for skin cancer, using the five strategies we’ve outlined can dramatically reduce your chances. If you have questions about which strategies would be best for you, or to schedule your annual skin cancer screening, schedule an appointment with one of our dermatologists today.