The United States surgeon general recently issued the warning that skin cancer is a "major public health problem" and that too much exposure to indoor and outdoor ultraviolet (UV) light is a major cause. Having treated numerous patients with various skin cancers, I certainly agree with that warning.
Five million people are diagnosed with skin cancer yearly, with approximately 63,000 new cases of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer which results in about 9,000 deaths a year. The other common types of skin cancers, squamous cell and basal cell, are not as dangerous as melanoma but can sometimes spread.
The reason for the government warning is that most skin cancer cases are preventable. To reduce the risk, it’s important to avoid damage from UV rays from the sun, but also from tanning beds, which can increase risk of skin cancers. The most important action is to avoid blistering sunburns while tanning.
A recent study showed that the highest risk for melanoma is the number of such sunburns between the ages of 15 and 20, although there is still a risk with repeated unprotected sun exposure. The other skin cancer types primarily occur from a cumulative amount of sun.
A lot of people like to be in the sun and don’t want to wear hats and long sleeves. The worst sun exposure is between 11 am and 2 pm, which are the most common times for people to sunbathe. However, if you’re going to be out in the sun, at least use sunscreen appropriately:
- Apply at least every two hours, as sunscreens deteriorate within that time.
- Reapply sunscreen more often if you sweat or get wet.
- Use at least SPF of 30 (over 50 SPF doesn’t give much added protection).
- Use a lot of sunscreen! If you use a spray, use twice as much because much of the spray will miss your body.
- Dark-skinned people need to make sure to cover their palms and soles of the feet.
Certain foods can also help protect you, especially fruits and vegetables. Vitamin C, green tea and grape seed extract are anti-oxidants that may also be protective.
Finally, always check with a dermatologist if you have any suspicious skin lesions, especially ones that have grown, changed in size, shape or color, or that bleed.
View our skin cancer awareness infographic.
Learn more about skin cancer.