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Step into Summer with these Sun Protection Tips

Everybody loves the outdoors in the spring and summer. After a long winter of dark mornings and early dusk, come May, people crave sunlight! With the sun comes the responsibility of protecting your largest organ – the skin– from the sun’s damaging rays.

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and it’s the perfect time to talk about what you can do to take precautions and stay on top of your skin’s health. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer in the U.S. Current estimates are that 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer at some point in their lifetime. And, as is the case with any type of cancer, treating it early and doing everything you can to prevent it is incredibly important.

Types of skin cancer

There are three main types of skin cancer. Basal cell and squamous cell skin cancers are most often found in areas exposed to the sun, such as the head, neck, and arms. These types of cancer can also occur elsewhere and are very common, and usually very treatable. Melanoma is less common than some other skin cancers but more likely to grow and spread. According to the ACS, melanoma accounts for approximately 1 percent of skin cancers, but causes the majority of skin cancer related deaths. Over the last 30 years, the rates of melanoma have been increasing.

“Catching skin cancer early is key. When detected early, most skin cancers can be treated effectively and are often curable,” said  Jeffrey M. Farma, MD, FACS, a surgical oncologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center. “When you know your own skin markings—moles, freckles and blemishes—you’re likely to notice changes that occur. In addition to checking your own skin regularly, have your skin checked yearly by your primary doctor or dermatologist for signs of skin cancer.” 

The ABCDE Rule of Skin Cancer

If a mole or marking has gone through recent changes in color and/or size, contact your doctor as soon as possible,” Farma said. “Skin cancer affects people of all skin tones, despite complexion and can occur anywhere on the body.”

Skin Cancer Prevention

The most preventable cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light: however, it isn’t necessary to totally avoid the sun. Below are steps you can take to limit your exposure.

  • Seek shade, especially when the sun is strongest, between 10 am and 4 pm. The shadow test can help determine the strength of the sun’s rays: if your shadow is shorter than you, then rays are strongest. Another useful number to note is that of the UV Index. It will let you know how strong the sun’s rays will be on any given day.
  • Cover up with clothing as much as possible. If light can shine through your clothing, then UV rays can penetrate as well. In general, dark colors provide better protection than light ones. Remember to wear UV-blocking sunglasses for eye protection and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your scalp, face, and ears.
  • Use a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher on unprotected skin, paying close attention to the face, ears, neck, arms and any other areas not covered by clothing. Use lip balm with sunscreen on your lips. Be aware that sunscreen does not block all UV rays and needs to be reapplied at least every two hours to maintain protection. Sunscreen is just as important on hazy or overcast days.
  • Avoid tanning beds, booths, and sunlamps. Studies have shown that exposure to UV radiation damages your skin, whether the exposure comes from tanning beds or natural sunlight. There is no such thing as safe tanning. 

Risk Factors for skin cancer

The most common risk factor for skin cancer is also the most preventable one: exposure to natural and artificial UV light. In fact, 95 percent of melanoma cases can be attributed to exposure to UV light, yet that number can be cut in half with daily use of sunscreen throughout a lifetime.  Do not tan or burn and avoid tanning salons.

Some risk factors can’t be controlled; however, such as fair skin that burns easily, red hair, freckles, more than 50 moles on one’s body, and a family history of melanoma.

In addition, those with a personal history of melanoma are at a greater risk for having another melanoma diagnosed.

The U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recommends counseling for young adults, adolescents, children, and parents of young children about minimizing exposure to ultraviolet radiation for fair-skinned people ages 6 months to 24 years, to reduce their risk of skin cancer. The Task Force also recommends counseling should be selectively offered to adults older than 24 years with fair skin. In determining whether counseling is appropriate in individual cases, patients and clinicians should consider the presence of risk factors for skin cancer.

Diligence is key in both modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors. Take precautions to avoid and lessen sun exposure. If you notice changes in your skin – any at all – it is best to have them checked out by your physician or dermatologist.

For more information on skin cancer and the Fox Chase Cancer Center Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program, please call 1-888-FOX CHASE.