At the start of Memorial Day weekend, with summer around the corner, Georgians have already had a sneak preview of the hot, sunny days that lie ahead.
While trips to the beach, outdoor activities, and vacation getaways are routine summer experiences for many of us, so is exposure to the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, a risk factor for various skin cancers.
The CDC says different patterns of exposure to the sun have been linked with various forms of skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form.
For instance, non-melanoma skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma are linked to continuous, chronic sun exposure. Individuals who frequently work outdoors are more likely to get this type of cancer. Intermittent exposure to the sun, which includes recreational exposure, has been linked to both non-melanoma skin cancers and melanoma.
“Prolonged sun exposure equals skin damage,” says Dr. John Janik, leader of the Melanoma Multidisciplinary Clinic at Georgia Health Sciences University Cancer Center. “Over time, that damage accumulates and can lead to skin cancers, including melanoma.”
Dr. Brian Pollack, a dermatologist and assistant professor at the Emory University School of Medicine, adds, “Most studies suggest that the rates of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancer are increasing.”
Regardless of who is at most risk, people of all skin colors get skin cancer, so everyone should protect themselves from harmful UV rays.
The CDC recommends the following as strategies for protection:
- Seek shade, especially during midday hours (between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.).
- Wear protective clothing to cover any exposed skin.
- Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears, and neck.
- Wear sunglasses.
- Use sunscreen that has a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
Sunscreens labeled “broad spectrum,” with an SPF of 15 or greater, provide higher protection against both UV and UVB radiation, which is the cause of sunburn, another risk factor for skin cancers. Additionally, the SPF value that is often listed on sunscreen containers indicates the level the product provides against sunburn.
“Sunscreen should be worn even on cloudy or cool days,” Janik says. “Even if you can’t see them, the sun’s rays are still there.”
“Sunscreen and protective clothing are very important methods to minimize exposure to ultraviolet radiation,” Pollack adds, “Specifically, apply broad-spectrum sunscreen before going outside, and re-apply it every two hours and after swimming.”
A year ago, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued new regulations on sunscreen that will take effect this summer. These regulations will require that all sunscreens, including cosmetics and moisturizers containing sunscreen, be labeled to clearly indicate and describe the purpose of sunscreen use, standard drug facts, water resistance claims, and the level of UV protection provided.
While people can get exposure to harmful UV rays directly from the sun, they can also get it from tanning beds.
“Tanning beds use the same rays to tan your skin as the sun does,” Janik says. “In fact, [they] may be more dangerous, because the illusion of safety may prompt people to spend more time in tanning beds.”
In the May 11 issue of the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, the CDC found that indoor tanning was most common among women, whites and young adults and that new occurrences of melanoma were higher among young white women than men.
“Indoor tanning is particularly dangerous for younger users because indoor tanning before age 35 years increases the risk for melanoma by 75 percent,’’ the CDC reports.
Pollack also emphasizes the importance of detecting skin cancers in an early stage.
“If you have a spot on your skin of any color that is new or that has changed in any way, it is best to have it evaluated by a health care provider,” Pollack says.
GHN intern Alvin Tran received his Master’s of Public Health in Behavioral Sciences and Health Education from the Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University. This summer, he will be a health media intern for the Kaiser Family Foundation and KQED Public Radio in San Francisco.