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Skin Cancer Facts:
Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and worldwide.
- 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.
- More than 2 people die of skin cancer in the U.S. every hour.
- Having 5 or more sunburns doubles your risk for melanoma. Melanoma is the most serious form of skin cancer and causes 75% of all skin cancer deaths. If left untreated, it can spread to other organs and is difficult to control.
- Basal cell and squamous cell cancers are less serious types and make up 95% of all skin cancers. These forms are also referred to as non-melanoma skin cancers, and they are highly curable when treated early.
Causes & Symptoms:
- Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is the number one cause of skin cancer, but UV light from tanning beds is just as harmful. Exposure to sunlight during the winter months puts you at the same risk as exposure during the summertime.
- Cumulative sun exposure causes mainly basal cell and squamous cell skin cancer, while episodes of severe blistering sunburns, usually before age 18, can cause melanoma later in life.
- The most common warning sign of skin cancer is a change on the skin; typically a new mole, a new skin lesion, or a change in an existing mole.
- When looking for melanoma, think of the ABCDE rule that tells you the signs to watch for:
- Asymmetry: The shape of one half doesn’t match the other.
- Border: Edges are ragged or blurred.
- Color: Uneven shades of brown, black, tan, red, white, or blue.
- Diameter: A significant change in size (greater than 6 mm).
- Evolution: Changes in the way a mole or lesion looks or feels (itchy, bleeding, etc.).
While sunburns should be avoided, sun exposure is very beneficial (and necessary) for optimal health. Most importantly, sun exposure is the most effective way to increase vitamin D levels. As many as 70 percent of Americans are considered vitamin D deficient (levels lower than 30 ng/mL), and this deficiency has been associated with various types of cancer (breast, colon, brain, myeloma), type I diabetes, preeclampsia, impaired fetal growth, osteoporosis, arthritis, and autoimmunity. It is now well known that individuals with higher serum vitamin D levels are more likely to be asymptomatic with COVID-19 infection (Grant et al., 2020), and high levels can also reduce the number of COVID-19 patients admitted to hospitals who require admission to the ICU (Castillo et al., 2020). Even 15-30 minutes of unprotected sunlight will help increase vitamin D levels, however, the amount of time you should spend in the sun unprotected will vary based on your skin tone.
Here are some reminders on how to protect your skin from sunburns!
- Use sunscreen every day, even if it is cloudy.
- Apply at least one ounce of sunscreen (enough to fill a shot glass) after getting your recommended dose of unprotected sunlight. Also, use a lip balm or lipstick that contains sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30.
- Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. Make sure it is water-resistant and has an SPF of 30 or higher. Other sunscreens may help keep you from getting sunburned, but they won’t protect against skin cancer.
- Reapply sunscreen every two hours and every hour if you are swimming or sweating.
- Check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, but its shelf life is shorter if it has been exposed to high temperatures.
- Be extra careful around water and sand. These surfaces reflect the sun’s damaging rays, which can increase your chance of getting a sunburn.
- Keep babies younger than 6 months old completely covered and in the shade.
- The sun’s rays are the most intense between 10AM-4PM. This is the best time to synthesize vitamin D, but also the time you are likeliest to get burned. Practice the shadow rule: if your shadow is shorter than you, the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
- If possible, wear a long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Dark clothing with tightly woven fabric blocks more sun than white or loosely woven fabrics. For additional protection, look for clothes made with special sun-protective materials.
- Accessorize with a hat that shades your face, neck, and ears and a pair of sunglasses. Sunglasses with lenses with 99% to 100% UV absorption provide optimal protection for the eyes and the surrounding skin.
- Be even more careful if you are taking medications that may make you more sensitive to the sun. These include specific types of antibiotics, anti-inflammatories, antifungals, blood pressure medications, and chemotherapies.
- Make sure to perform regular skin self-exams to become familiar with existing growths and notice any changes or new growths!
Castillo, M. E., Costa, L. M. E., Barrios, J. M. V., Díaz, J. F. A., Miranda, J. L., Bouillon, R., & Gomez, J. M. Q. (2020).
Effect of calcifediol treatment and best available therapy versus best available therapy on intensive care unit admission and mortality among patients hospitalized for COVID-19: A pilot randomized clinical study. The Journal of steroid biochemistry and molecular biology, 203, 105751.
Grant, W. B., Lahore, H., McDonnell, S. L., Baggerly, C. A., French, C. B., Aliano, J. L., & Bhattoa, H. P. (2020). Evidence that vitamin D supplementation could reduce risk of influenza and COVID-19 infections and deaths. Nutrients, 12(4), 988.
About the Author:
Denise Brown holds a Master’s degree in Public Health from UCLA and has worked in health and wellness for over 20 years. She is currently the BaySport Program Manager for contracts with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers.