While enjoying the summer, don't forget to protect your skin. Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the U.S. today, killing roughly one American every hour, according to the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. Moreover, the American Cancer Society estimates that over 68,000 cases of malignant melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, will be diagnosed in the United States in 2011 alone, along with 2 million cases of the less severe basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas.
The good news is that skin cancer is highly preventable and curable if found early enough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that between 65-90 percent of melanomas are due to exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, which comes from the sun, tanning beds and sun lamps. There are three main types of UV rays, which vary in absorption and severity.
The most common type, UVA rays, penetrate deep into the skin and damage connective tissue. UVB rays, though they are less common and penetrate less deeply, are still damaging. UVC rays are the most harmful. They are absorbed by the ozone layer and thus do not usually reach the ground. When one's skin is exposed to too many of these harmful UV rays, it can prematurely age as well as be permanently damaged. Eye conditions, including cataracts, are also linked with UV rays.
While fair- or light-skinned individuals have a higher risk for UV damage, individuals of all races and ethnicities can get skin cancer. Other risk factors for skin cancer include having a family history of skin cancer or other skin diseases, a higher exposure to chemicals or radiation, many moles or freckles, a history of skin cancer, severe sunburns, or other long-term skin problems, older age, or being male.
Steps you can take to prevent skin cancer include:
- Avoid midday exposure: The sun is strongest between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. (daylight savings time). Try to reduce your sun exposure during these hours by seeking shade.
- Do not go to tanning beds: Tanning salons expose individuals to as much as 15 times the UV radiation of the sun, according to a 2010 study in the journal Pigment Cell & Melanoma Research, and greatly increase the risk for melanomas of the skin.
- Wear hats and other protective clothing: Long pants, long shirts and wide-brimmed hats greatly decrease your exposure to UV radiation. Tight-woven clothing offers the best coverage and make sure a hat covers your face, neck and ears.
- Use sunscreen: Generously apply waterproof sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure using a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) greater than 15. As SPF indicates protection against only UVB rays, be sure to choose wide-spectrum sunscreens that block the more harmful UVA rays as well. Reapply every 2 hours, even on cloudy days, and also after sweating or swimming.
- Plan around the sun: The National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have created the UV Index, a daily measurement that forecasts UV radiation on a scale of 1-15. The index, based on cloud cover and other local conditions, helps inform individuals about their risk of overexposure when outdoors. Find out the UV index for your city at: http://www.epa.gov/sunwise/uvindex.html.
- Wear sunglasses: Choose sunglasses that provide close to 100 percent UVA and UVB protection, as they can reduce the risk for cataracts.
- Be cautious around sand, snow, concrete and water: According to the EPA, these bright surfaces reflect UV and can double UV exposure.
For more information, visit http://www.cdc.gov/cancer/skin, http://www.skincancerprevention.org, and http://www.ewg.org/2010sunscreen/top-sunscreen-tips/.Every Monday, the Johns Hopkins Healthy Monday Project, part of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, offers tips for preventing disease and injury, and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Check back each week for new tips or visit our archive.