Summer…just the word inspires visions of swimming in the pool, browsing the farmer’s market, playing a round of golf and going to the zoo.
Yes, summer is a season for fun in the sun, but before you soak up too many rays, it’s crucial to take steps to protect your skin. Too much exposure to the sun can result in a sunburn, which is not only painful and unsightly, but can increase your risk of developing skin cancer. In fact, getting sunburnt just once every two years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer.1
The risk of skin cancer
Did you know that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States? Not only is it the most common, but more skin cancers are diagnosed in the U.S. each year than all other cancers combined.2
According to the American Cancer Society,there will be 5.4 million skin cancer (non-melanoma) cases in the U.S. in 2019, while there will be 817,000 cases of female breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer and colorectal cancer combined.3 Skin cancer doesn’t just outweigh these four cancers though—but all other cancers also combined!
What is skin cancer?4
So, what exactly is skin cancer? You probably already know that skin cancer starts in the cells of the skin, but there are actually three main types of skin cancers to be aware of:
- Basal cell skin cancers (basal cell carcinomas)
- Squamous cell skin cancers (squamous cell carcinomas)
Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are the most common cancers of the skin. These types of skin cancer are mainly found on the parts of the body that are exposed to the sun, such as the head and neck. Basal and squamous cell skin cancers are strongly tied to your sun exposure.
Compared to melanomas, basal and squamous cell cancers are less likely to spread to other parts of the body and become life threatening. Still, it’s essential to find and treat them early! If not treated, they may grow and invade nearby tissues and organs, which could cause scarring, deformity or loss of function in some body parts, or even death.
Melanomas are cancers that develop from melanocytes. These are the cells that give skin its color. Melanocytes can also form noncancerous (benign) growths, which we call moles.
While melanomas are not as common as basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers, they can be much more serious. Melanoma is much more likely to spread to other parts of the body, making it very difficult to treat. However, it can usually be cured in its early stages.
What are UV rays, and how do they cause cancer?5
The number one cause of skin cancer is the sun’s UVA and UVB ultraviolet (UV) rays. According to the American Cancer Society, “UV rays damage the DNA of skin cells. Skin cancers start when this damage affects the DNA of genes that control skin cell growth.”
UVA and UVB rays differ in how they affect the skin. UVA rays age skin cells and are linked to long-term skin damage, such as wrinkles. They can also cause damage to DNA and are thought to play a role in some skin cancers.
UVB rays are thought to cause most skin cancers. These rays have more energy than UVA rays and can damage the DNA of skin cells directly. UVB rays are also what mostly causes sunburns.
Who can get skin cancer?
Anyone can get skin cancer. However, people with light skin are more likely to have sun damage, which increases their risk of skin cancer. You should be extra careful if you:
- Have natural blond or red hair.
- Have freckles.
- Are fair skinned.
- Spend a lot of time outside.
- Have a history of skin cancer.
- Are in a tropical climate or high altitude.
- Take medications that make you sensitive to sunlight.
- Have had a lot of sunburns.
- Burn before tanning.
- Have a condition that lowers your immune system.
- Have a family history of skin cancer, especially melanoma.
- Have a lot of moles, or large/irregularly shaped moles.
How can I protect myself from skin cancer?6
Hopefully we haven’t scared you from stepping foot outside this summer! The good news is, it’s easy to protect yourself from cancer-causing UV rays. It just takes a little extra effort and time before you step out the door. Here are four tips to help you protect your skin—so you can enjoy summer’s sunshine to its fullest!
1. Wear sunscreen
You should wear sunscreen every day, year-round, but it’s even more important during the summer, when the sun is stronger. It’s important to select a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Choose a sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher.
Be sure to follow all instructions on the sunscreen label and reapply every two hours—or even more if you’re swimming or sweating. Apply a generous amount—about 1 ounce—to your arms, legs, neck, face, ears, hands, feet and underarms
2. Cover up with clothing, hats and sunglasses
Besides sunscreen, what you wear can help protect your skin from UV rays. If you spend a lot of time outside, consider getting UV protection clothing and swimwear. Be sure your sunglasses block 100% of UV rays.
3. Seek shade
Limit your direct exposure to the sun, especially between 10 am and 4 pm, when UV rays are strongest.
4. Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps
These can cause serious long-term skin damage, age you faster and contribute to skin cancer.
5. Get regular full-body skin exams from a dermatologist
The earlier skin cancer is detected, the better the chance for a good outcome. This is why it’s important to visit your dermatologist for regular full-body skin exams. Talk to your doctor about how frequently you should receive skin exams.
With these sun safety tips on your side, you can enjoy summer’s sunshine to the fullest!
1Cancer Research UK, How does the sun and UV cause cancer?, https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/causes-of-cancer/sun-uv-and-cancer/how-does-the-sun-and-uv-cause-cancer,
2American Cancer Society, Skin Cancer Prevention and Early Detection, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer/prevention-and-early-detection.html, accessed 2019.
3American Cancer Society, Don’t Fry: Preventing Skin Cancer, https://www.cancer.org/research/infographics-gallery/skin-cancer-prevention.html, 2019.
4American Cancer Society, What is Skin Cancer?, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer/prevention-and-early-detection/what-is-skin-cancer.html, 2017.
5American Cancer Society, What is Ultraviolet (UV) Radiation?, https://www.cancer.org/cancer/skin-cancer/prevention-and-early-detection/what-is-uv-radiation.html, 2019.
6American Cancer Society, Don’t Fry: Preventing Skin Cancer, https://www.cancer.org/research/infographics-gallery/skin-cancer-prevention.html, 2019.