Without the sun, our planet would be frozen solid. Earth’s land, water and air would be an ice mass, and life on Earth would cease to exist. We rely on the sun’s heat to survive, but the flip side is that the sun also emits ultraviolet rays (UVR) that can be harmful and damaging.
While the sun’s warmth is relaxing and soothing, the UVR dangers are real. More than 3.5 million cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year; over 90% are caused by the sun’s UVR. The majority of skin damage associated with aging—wrinkles, sagging, discoloration and leathering—is also UVR-related. Skin damages occur over time, so when you are in the sun, take smart precautions. Enjoy the benefits without risking your health.
Sun Safety Habits
An obvious part of skin cancer prevention is sun safety habits. Smart sun habits should be part of everyone's daily health care. Here are some important tips to follow.
- Seek the shade, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
- Do not burn.
- Avoid tanning and UV tanning booths.
- Cover up with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day.
- For extended outdoor activity, use a water-resistant, broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.
- Apply 1 ounce (2 tablespoons) of sunscreen to your entire body 30 minutes before going outside. Reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun completely and use sunscreen on babies over the age of six months.
- Examine your skin head-to-toe every month.
- See your board-certified dermatologist every year for a professional skin exam.
Avoid Tanning Beds
Avoiding tanning beds/booths altogether is one way to take a stand on skin cancer prevention. People who use tanning beds are 2.5 times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and 1.5 times more likely to develop basal cell carcinoma (BCC). Tanning beds have become a public issue in the last few years because of the proven ill effects they cause. Because sun (and UV) exposure in childhood and the teenage years can be so damaging, policymakers in 42 states are regulating minors' use of tanning beds.
Use Higher SPF Sunscreens Often
A sunscreen's SPF, or sun protection factor, measures how long unprotected skin can be exposed to the sun's shortwave, ultraviolet B (UVB), rays before burning, compared with how long it takes to burn without protection. If used correctly, sunscreen with an SPF of 15 would prevent sunburn 15 times longer than if the product weren't used.
Sunscreen with an SPF of 15 effectively filters out about 93% of all incoming UVB rays, while SPF 30 keeps out 97% and SPF 50, 98%. These higher SPFs can make a difference for people with skin that always burns rather than tans, people with photosensitive conditions such as lupus, those taking medications that increase photosensitivity and outdoor sports enthusiasts who spend a lot of time in the sun.
However, a high SPF alone is not enough. SPF measures protection against UVB, but not against the sun's long-wave, ultraviolet A (UVA) rays. New research shows UVA penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB, causing as much or even more damage. UVA is also the key cause of sun-induced skin aging (photo-aging). So look for products that offer "broad spectrum" or "UVA/UVB" protection, and make sure your sunscreen has one or more of the following UVA-filtering ingredients: titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, stabilized avobenzone or ecamsule (aka, MexorylTM).
Reapply sunscreen every two hours or after swimming or excessive sweating for better skin cancer prevention. After two hours in the sun, sunscreen loses effectiveness, so it's vital to reapply. It’s important to know that no sunscreen is completely waterproof, so if you've been swimming or exercising heavily, reapply immediately. Use sunscreen every day, year-round, in every kind of weather for better sun safety.
Sun Exposure in Your Car
When thinking about sun exposure, you might envision yourself on the beach or exercising outdoors. But millions of Americans receive a large portion of their sun exposure when they don’t even realize it—in their cars. Protect yourself while driving, especially from the glaring sun that pours in through the driver’s side window. Wraparound sunglasses that block 99% to 100% of the sun's UV rays effectively shield both eyes and the surrounding skin, helping prevent serious conditions—from cataracts to melanomas—of the eye and eyelid.
Sun Safety at School
"Guidelines for School Programs to Prevent Skin Cancer" is published by the CDC and explains how school administrators, staff and parents can work together, along with community health care service providers to promote sun safety, awareness and skin cancer prevention.
Winter Sports and Sun Exposure
Winter sports enthusiasts are at increased risk for overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet radiation (UVR). The combination of higher altitude and UVR reflected by the snow puts skiers and snowboarders at an increased risk of sun damage and, ultimately, skin cancer.
Sunlight reflects off snow, ice, sand and water, intensifying UVR effects by up to 80%.
So in winter, a good skin cancer prevention tip is to cover your hands, neck and as much as possible of your face. If your skin gets dry, moisturizing sunscreen formulas are a great idea. Even on overcast days, 70% to 80% of UVR travels through clouds. At high altitudes, for example when you're skiing, the thinner atmosphere filters out less UVR.
Education and Awareness
The dangers of UVA exposure are outlined on the Sun Safety Alliance website. Helping increase people’s awareness of the dangers of sun exposure is a big step in skin cancer prevention. Here are some sun safety facts.
- You can sunburn even on a cloudy day.
- On average, children get three times more exposure than adults.
- One blistering sunburn can double a child's lifetime risk of getting skin cancer.
- Depletion of the earth's ozone continues to increase your exposure to UVA rays.
- Melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, kills one person every hour.
Skin Cancer Hot Spots
The most common place to develop skin cancer for both men and women is the sides of the nose. But men tend to develop skin cancer more often than women do on the tops of their heads and their ears. This is because men typically have less hair to cover these spots. The fact that men more often have shirts off may explain why they are also more likely than women to get skin cancer on their shoulders, chests and backs.
Skin cancer prevention is a responsibility we owe to ourselves and our family members. Take the necessary precautions to protect against a life-threatening condition. Be aware of your skin and see your dermatologist annually. Prevention is the key and it can only be accomplished through vigilant skin cancer screening and skin cancer awareness.