For most people, summer weather means enjoying the outdoors, doing yard work or vacationing at the beach. But the summer sun can damage your skin. In fact, exposure to the sun”s ultraviolet (UV) rays is a leading risk factor for skin cancer – and more than 3.5 million Americans are diagnosed with it every year.
Skin cancer is a broad term that refers to any cancer that begins in skin cells. Basal cell carcinoma, which tends to occur in areas that receive the most sunlight (head, neck, hands, etc.), is the most common form of skin cancer and accounts for about 80 percent of cases. Squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for about 20 percent of skin cancers, is also common in areas with high sun exposure. Melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Although it accounts for only about five percent of skin cancers cases, it”s the cause of more than 75 percent of the 12,000 annual skin cancer deaths in the U.S.
Most skin cancers are slow to spread and are treatable, if not curable, when caught early. But because skin cancer also can be deadly, it is important to understand the risk factors and how to reduce your risk.
UV exposure: The primary risk factor for skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, including sunlight, sunlamps and tanning beds. The greater exposure, the greater the risk. Skin cancer is more common where the sun is strong, such as in the South. People who have had at least one severe (blistering) sunburn, frequent sunburns as a child, or used sunlamps or tanning beds before age 30, are also at increased risk.
Fair Skin: Caucasians have a greater risk of developing skin cancer than non-whites. The risk is also higher in individuals with blonde or red hair, blue or green eyes, or skin that burns or freckles easily.
Older Age: Skin cancer risks increase as you age, likely due to accumulated exposure to UV radiation.
Family or Personal History: Individuals with a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) or who have previously been diagnosed with skin cancer are at increased risk.
Although skin cancer is usually highly treatable, prevention is best. No matter your age or previous sun exposure, decreasing your exposure to UV light (direct sunlight and tanning beds) is the most important thing you can do to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer. When you do go out in the sun, wear protective clothing, hats, sunglasses and sunscreen.
When choosing a sunscreen, the higher the SPF (sun protection factor), the stronger the protection. But don”t let a high SPF lull you into thinking you”re safe. It is important to reapply sunscreen frequently. This is especially true for children, since childhood sun exposure can be a significant risk factor for developing skin cancer later in life.
Also remember that SPF refers only to protection against UVB radiation, which burns the skin, and not to UVA radiation that penetrates deep into the skin, accelerates skin aging and may cause skin cancer. Some sunscreens protect against both, so be sure to check labels. In addition, sunscreens from KINeSYS, Soleo, Green Beaver and Badger offer organic formulations with no added chemicals that can also sometimes damage skin.
Finally, regular, thorough skin examinations are important, especially if you have a large number of moles or other risk factors. While this will not prevent skin cancer from developing, exams can help catch it early. Always tell your doctor if you see any new, unusual or changing moles or growths on your skin.
It”s virtually impossible to go through life with no sun exposure, so we all have some level of risk for skin cancer. But by being aware and taking steps to protect yourself from the sun, you can help keep your skin healthy and reduce your risk.
For more information about skin cancer risks, signs, symptoms and treatments, visit the Cancer Treatment Centers of America website at: http://www.cancercenter.com/skin-cancer.cfm.
Daniel Kellman, ND, FABNO, is clinical director of naturopathic medicine with Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Newnan, Ga.