Your skin—and your eyes—need protection at this time of year. In honor of UV Safety Month and ongoing skin cancer awareness, we’re reviewing what you need to know about the risks of skin cancer. What can you do to safeguard your skin against short and long-term damage?
Understanding the risks of skin cancer
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States. It affects approximately 4.3 million American adults each year. There are two major groups of skin cancer: keratinocyte, of which basal and squamous cell carcinomas are the most common within this group, and melanoma.
Skin cancer is most prevalent among older white men, but it can strike anyone. If you spend time outdoors, you are potentially at risk. However, some additional risk factors can make skin cancer more likely to occur:
- Fair skin
- Green or blue eyes
- Sun-sensitive skin
- Numerous moles
- Personal or family history of skin cancer
- Older age
What you need to know about sunburns
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, a single blistering sunburn, or a lifetime total of five mild to moderate sunburns, can double your chances of developing skin cancer. Sunburn facts that might surprise you include:
- While fair skin is most likely to burn, darker skin does not automatically confer protection
- Even a mild pink sunburn can increase your risk of skin cancer
- You can burn even on a cloudy day, as approximately 80% of the sun’s rays can penetrate through clouds
- Tanning is your body’s way of protecting you against sunburn, but it is still a type of skin damage
- Skin will burn fastest on days with a high UV index, but it can still burn on low UV index days
Although it raises your skin cancer risks over time, it is generally not a medical emergency if you do get a sunburn. You can treat most sunburns at home with the following steps:
- Cool the skin: Take a quick dip in the pool or a short cooling bath or shower. Use cold compresses to continue the cooling process, but don’t stay in the water too long to avoid drying out the skin.
- Moisturize: Apply a light moisturizer while the skin is still damp, but avoid oil-based products, which can trap heat. Reapply daily throughout the healing process.
- Treat the inflammation: Unless you are medically unable to take them, NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) such as ibuprofen can help reduce inflammation and promote healing. You can also use aloe vera or over-the-counter cortisone cream to soothe your skin.
- Up your water consumption: Burns pull fluid to the surface of your skin, making it easy to get dehydrated. Drink plenty of cool water or sports drinks throughout the healing process.
- Don’t pick: It can be tempting to pick at a peeling sunburn. But peeling is part of the healing process. Picking at a sunburn can cause further damage while also increasing the risk of infection.
If you see signs of infection, feel dizzy or confused, or have severe blistering over much of your body, seek medical help right away. Otherwise, continue to apply home treatments until your burn is well healed. Be sure to protect your skin anytime you go outside, or you could worsen the damage.
Skin Cancer Awareness: Top Protection Strategies
Fortunately, there are many steps you can take to help protect your skin and minimize the risk of developing skin cancer.
The sun’s rays are the most intense between 10 am and 4 pm. Whenever possible, plan your outdoor activities for early morning or late afternoon. You’ll still need to protect your skin, but indirect rays are better than direct. You’re also less likely to overheat if you avoid direct sun exposure.
Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before leaving home, even on cloudy days. Choose a broad-spectrum product with an SPF (sun protection factor) of at least 30. Don’t forget the tops of your feet and the back of your neck. Reapply at least every three hours, even if the sunscreen is water repellent or you don’t go in the water.
You may want to shed clothing to stay cool when it’s hot out. But this leaves your skin at risk. Even if you’re wearing sunscreen, the more barriers you can put between your skin and the sun’s rays, the better. Choose long sleeves and pants in a high-tech fabric with an ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) of 30 or higher. In light, loosely woven fabrics, you’ll feel cooler, but dark, tight weaves offer additional protection. Note that clothing will do little to protect you if it gets wet.
Whenever possible, put some shelter between yourself and the direct sun. You can carry a parasol, seek shade under a tree, or even rest in the shadow of a building. It won’t protect you fully, so you’ll still need sunscreen. But staying out of the direct sun is always a smart idea.
Head, lip, and eye protection
Your head, lips, and eyes are at risk for sun damage, but you can’t slather sunscreen onto these areas. You can protect your head with a wide brimmed hat. Choose a tightly woven fabric for the best protection.
For your lips, choose a lip balm that contains sunblock. You’ll find them at every price point, both in stores and online. You may need to try a few to find your favorite, as they can vary widely in texture, consistency, and taste.
Protect your eyes with wraparound UV-blocking sunglasses. Look for glasses marked either 100% UV protection or UV 400, both of which indicate that they block both UVA and UVB rays.
A note on tanning beds
Some people claim that tanning beds are safer than sun exposure because the amount of UV light is closely monitored. This may or may not be true, but any UV exposure at all puts you at risk for skin damage and increases your chances of developing skin cancer. If you want to safely tan your skin, consider a spray tan or bronzing cream instead.
Monthly skin self-exams
It’s essential to have your skin checked once a year by a dermatologist. But since skin cancer is highly treatable when caught early, it’s also a smart idea to perform a monthly skin self-exam. Using both a full-length mirror and a hand mirror, carefully check your entire body for any new or unusual bumps, rashes, or other conditions. Take a good look at any new moles, and check existing moles for any changes.
A healthy mole may be raised or flat, and either oval or round in shape. It will be an even tan, brown, or black in color. A suspicious mole is irregularly shaped and may appear jagged. It will also have a mosaic appearance, with multiple colors or shades.
Though skin cancer is very treatable, prevention is always the best choice. Contact your dermatologist as soon as possible if you notice any significant changes to your skin. Otherwise, continue to practice skin safety every time you go outside, from applying sunscreen to seeking shade.