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Shining a Spotlight on UV Rays

You’ve probably heard about the link between UV rays and skin cancer. But what exactly are UV rays, and how are they dangerous? And most importantly—what can you do to reduce your exposure?

Here are the basics: The light that comes from the sun contains ultraviolet, or UV, rays, including UVA and UVB rays. These two types of rays emit different levels of energy, but they have some things in common: Both are invisible to the naked eye, and both can seriously damage your skin.

“UV rays can change the DNA of cells, which affects how cells grow or repair themselves,” explained Jeffrey Farma, MD, Surgical Director of the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program at Fox Chase. “This can lead to abnormal growth and skin cancers.”

It’s impossible to avoid UV rays altogether. (That’s true even if you were to always stay inside since UVA rays can penetrate glass.) But there are simple steps you can take to reduce your exposure—and lower your risk of skin cancer and other health problems:

  • Stay out of direct sunlight between 10:00 A.M. and 4:00 P.M. That’s when UV rays are strongest.
  • Avoid tanning booths. They deliver concentrated doses of UV rays and are not safer than the sun. Researchers estimate that indoor tanning may cause as many as 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. every year. Even one indoor tanning session may raise your risk of melanoma—the most deadly form of skin cancer—by 20 percent. And UV light from tanning beds increases the risk that a benign mole will progress to melanoma.
  • Put on some shades. Sunglasses shield your eyes from UV rays, which can damage your eye’s cornea, lens, and surface tissues. Long-term sun exposure raises your chances of developing cataracts, eye cancer, and growths on or near your eyes. Read the labels on sunglasses, and buy ones that say they block 100 percent of both UVA and UVB rays or that offer 100 percent protection against UV 400. Don’t be fooled by how dark the lenses are in sunglasses—darkness doesn’t indicate the strength of UV protection.
  • Cover up. Wear a broad-rimmed hat, long pants, and a long-sleeved shirt whenever you can, some clothes now even have built in SPF protection.
  • Apply a broad-spectrum sunscreen daily. Opt for one that’s water-resistant and has an SPF of 30 or greater.          

Finally, keep a close eye on your skin. Ask your doctor to check your skin at your yearly visit. Perform monthly self-checks too. Examine your skin from head to toe, using a mirror for hard-to-see areas or ask your partner to help. If you notice a mole or blemish that looks different than usual, let your doctor know.

“Patients are often the first to notice these changes,” Farma said. “And when caught early, they’re much easier to treat.”

Read more about risk factors and preventing melanoma.

Learn more about the Melanoma and Skin Cancer Program at Fox Chase