The sun is undeniably bright, but what lurks beneath that sunshine-y appearance is much darker. Aside from wrinkles and dark spots, we all need to be concerned with the serious damage UV rays inflict.
As May Skin Cancer Awareness Month is here, now is the time to look at the facts about what the sun really does to the skin and what helps prevent skin cancer. In addition to the importance of sunscreen, we'll outline additional ways you can practice sun safety for the health of your skin and body.
Skin Cancer Awareness Facts
UV exposure is the primary cause of skin cancer. Skin cancer is estimated to affect 20% of Americans in their lifetime, making it the most prevalent cancer today. Approximately five million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with skin cancer this year. That's 9,500 daily - numbers that are on the rise! Despite most forms of skin cancer being treatable, about two people die of skin cancer hourly in the U.S., with 1% of the almost 100,000 melanoma cases diagnosed annually resulting in death.
Skin cancer occurs when skin cells grow abnormally resulting in various forms of skin cancer. There are three main types:
- Basal Cell Carcinoma is a common type of skin cancer that begins when the DNA of a skin cell that normally produces new healthy skin cells mutates. It rarely metastasizes elsewhere in the body.
- Squamous Cell Carcinoma is another typical type of skin cancer that occurs when the flat, thin squamous cells in the middle and outer layers of skin develop changes in their DNA.
- Melanoma arises in the pigment-producing cells, called melanocytes. While less prevalent than other skin cancers, it may appear anywhere on the skin and can spread within the body.
If you have actinic keratoses, those rough, scaly patches commonly labeled "precancers," you are not alone. These itchy and sometimes uncomfortable precancerous lesions affect 58 million people in the U.S. While unsightly, they serve as reminders to be hypervigilant about sun safety and see your dermatologist annually without fail.
If we sound grim, that is our intent. If you're still basking in the sun or visiting the tanning salon trying to achieve a bronzed look, this begs the question: Do you understand what the sun really does to the skin? We know that once you do, you'll skip the tanning oil because your skin and life depend on it!
Who Is Vulnerable?
Everyone is vulnerable to the sun's damaging rays. However, some are more susceptible to skin cancer than others. Whites are 20 times more likely to experience melanoma, with about 1 in 38 being affected. This contrasts with 1 in 1000 Blacks and 1 in 167 Hispanics. That doesn't mean those with darker-hued skin are immune to skin cancer!
Risk factors for most types of skin cancer include:
- UV exposure
- Multiple moles (think 50+)
- Light skin, hair, and freckles
- Family and personal history with skin cancer
- Immune suppressing drugs or impaired immune system
- Inherited genetic diseases
An additional risk factor for basal cell carcinoma is arsenic exposure, while males have an increased risk of developing melanoma, according to the American Cancer Society.
What Damage Does the Sun Do to Your Skin?
Newsflash: "There is no such thing as a safe tan," per the American Academy of Dermatology.
The sun wreaks havoc on the skin in multiple ways, emitting UV (ultraviolet) rays and solar radiation, the same light produced by tanning lamps.
A sunburn is a symptom of overexposure to UVB rays, referred to as burning rays. Just one burn can trigger long-term damage, premature aging, and increased odds of skin cancer. And your risk for melanoma doubles if you have had five or more burns.
But any exposure leads to major structural and functional skin breakdown. Tanning that yields a misleading "healthy" glow is also a sign that your skin has been injured. The tan you see is the handiwork of UVA rays, known as aging rays. These long-wave rays penetrate deep into the dermis, causing DNA damage and visible signs of aging. Exposure to these rays also increases the potential for skin cancer.
A quick walk to the mailbox or taking your dog out may seem benign but can add up to sun damage, despite no visible "evidence." Similarly, routinely sitting by a window in your house, office or car adds up to cumulative UV exposure and sun damage.
Both types of rays trigger an influx of enzymes that break down and reduce structural skin components, accelerating the aging process. Here's how:
- Collagen fibers decrease, collapse, elongate, and become fragmented while new production slows. Lines, wrinkles, and volume loss develop.
- Elastin fibers shorten, become cut off, and lose their ability to snap back. Loose, sagging skin appears.
- Dermal blood vessels become damaged. Skin nutrition is compromised, and capillaries appear dilated.
- Hyaluronidase breaks down natural Hyaluronic Acid levels, dehydrating the skin.
- Cyclooxygenase triggers irregular cell renewal and cell death.
- The epidermis thickens, creating a leathery skin texture.
- As the skin attempts to repair the DNA, it may result in faulty DNA repair, leading to skin cancer.
What Helps Prevent Skin Cancer?
Time for some good news: There are several steps you can take to help prevent skin cancer and sun damage. Of course, the best form of protection is abstinence. But here are the next best ways to practice sun and skin safety:
- Skip midday sun from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. when UV rays are strongest.
- Make broad-spectrum sunscreen a bare necessity! We've said it before and we'll say it again: When it comes to skin and self-care, nothing beats the importance of sunscreen - an everyday essential! Even on cloudy days or when you don't plan to leave the house, go ahead and apply sun protection to ward off UV rays. We know when staying home, you sit in front of a computer, television, or phone - which emit damaging blue lights. Make sure your sunscreen has blue light protection for just this purpose! Plus, how often have you sworn you weren't going anywhere and suddenly had to run an errand, only to remember later that you forgot sunscreen. For these occasions, keep one in the car or a bag you always take with you! (Note: Don't stash sunscreen in cars where temps get extra hot as excessive heat exposure renders sunscreen ineffective.)
- Get a tinted sunscreen if you prefer natural skin care, but the whitish cast from typical mineral sunscreens keeps you from consistent use.
- Be sunscreen smart: Reapply every two hours to "refresh" your sunscreen's protective ability. Remember to apply to often neglected areas: ears, back of your neck, and the part of your hair. Note: There is no such thing as a total sun blocker!
- Wear long sleeves and pants made with tightly woven dark fabrics or UV protective clothing.
- Choose a wide-brimmed hat that will shade your neck and chest, leaving the baseball cap at home since it won't protect your ears or sides of your face.
- Wear oversized sunglasses for extra protection of the delicate skin around the eyes and defense against cataracts and other eye damage.
- Skip shiny lip glosses which magnify the sun's intensity and damage, instead choose an SPF 30+ lip balm.
- Seek shade when possible and keep an umbrella handy for situations where none is to be found.
- Check for skin cancer warning signs - because with early detection, there is a 99%, 5-year survival rate for melanoma!
- Look for changes in your skin monthly, starting at the top of your head and working your way down. If you find a new bump, growth or sore that won't go away, get checked by a dermatologist as soon as possible.
- If you have skin cancer risk factors, we recommend getting checked annually to be safe.
- For those that have had skin cancer or are high risk, your doctor may want to check you every three to six months.
We trust that now you are well informed and will take deliberate action to practice safe sun care habits!
American Cancer Society “Risk Factors for Melanoma Skin Cancer”