Sun Protection: How to Reduce Your Risk of Skin Cancer

Skin Cancer Awareness Month

It is important to wear sunscreen everyday!

Although you may have heard this from different sources i.e. a dermatologist, your mom, or a magazine article, this one product can be the answer to slowing the aging process, keeping skin healthy and helping to avoid skin cancer. Understanding why sunscreen is important and how the sun damages your skin may encourage you to reapply and pay more attention to staying out of the sun.

May is National Skin Cancer Awareness Month, and according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, it is the most common form of cancer. There are over 5 million diagnosed cases in the U.S. alone.  With such a high number of cases, it is necessary to bring awareness as to how this can be prevented. Luckily, skin cancer is also one of the most preventable forms of cancer as it is mainly due to ultraviolet light radiation and sun exposure. I want to help you better understand how you can protect your skin during the upcoming summer months.

What Exactly Is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and is used to measure how long a sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays. It relates to the amount of time it would take for your skin to burn compared to not wearing any sunscreen. Therefore, if it takes your skin 10 minutes to burn when exposed to sun with no sun protection, it would take 300 minutes for you skin to burn while wearing an SPF 30 sunblock (30 SPF x 10 minutes = 300 minutes), making reapplication crucial as SPF does not last all day.  This is how sunscreen is measured…by the time it would take your skin to get red – “erythmogenic dose”.

The SPF numbers on sun protection products can range anywhere from 1-100+.  They are relative to the amount of protection your skin receives from UVB rays to the skin. As for UVA rays, it is important to search for sunscreen with the word “broad spectrum” as it relates to the ingredients in the product that will help to protect from both types of rays.

The Difference Between UVA And UVB Rays

  • UVA Rays: These have longer wavelengths, so they naturally penetrate deeper - they affect the deeper cells of the of skin.  UVA rays also cause immediate tanning or sunburn. Since they go deeper – they are also the rays that cause aging of the skin because they break down collagen.  These rays have been linked to cause damage to collagen and elastin tissue causing premature aging in the skin including wrinkles.
  • UVB Rays: These have a shorter wavelength and cause damage to the cells on top of the skin causing delayed tanning, sunburn, brown spots and in extreme cases, blistering (the visible signs of sun damage). This type of ray is usually associated to skin burning, linked to skin cancer and can also attribute to premature aging.

Both type of sun rays damage the DNA in the cells of the skin. 

Types of Skin Cancer

It is important to note the three most common types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and Melanoma.

  • Basal Cell Carcinoma is the most common type of skin cancer starting in the lower part of the epidermis called the basal layer. These are usually a result of overexposed areas, such as the face, hands, or neck. This type of cancer grows slowly, and if left untreated can grow larger and affect the local tissue it grows on…it can disfigure the nose, ear, or lip and also penetrate deep to extend into local nerves.
  • Squamous Cell Carcinoma are formed from the keratinocytes which are in the superficial part of the epidermis. Also, a result of sun-exposed areas such as face, hands, neck, and lips. In addition, squamous cell carcinoma can develop in scar tissue and form warts. This kind of skin cancer can spread to other areas of the body called metastasis.   This can be very serious and lethal.  
  • Melanoma is extremely serious and can be fatal if you don’t catch it early. Melanoma is formed from mutated melanocytes which are the pigment-making cells in the skin. This type of skin cancer has a high metastatic rate and can easily spread to other parts of the body. Even if very tiny, these abnormal moles that lead to melanoma can spread to other organs and cause death in young people. Melanoma is a very serious cancer. You can identify melanomas as black or very dark moles.  In addition, changing or rapidly growing moles can be a melanoma.  If you notice any new very dark, black or brand new mole this is something you should not avoid.  It is important to get a full-skin exam from a board-certified dermatologist. If you want to be proactive about your skin health you can make annual appointments with a board-certified dermatologist to detect any early skin cancers.

Misconceptions of Skin Cancer

The biggest misconception when it comes to skin cancer is that not everyone is susceptible to it – in reality, anyone can get it.  Even young people, around the age of 30. I have diagnosed several people in their 20's with melanoma.  Which is why it is so important to be conscious about your time in the sun, even at a young age! It is also important to avoid tanning beds – this is proven to increase your risk if MELANOMA!

The number two misconception about skin cancer is that it only occurs on sun-exposed areas. Skin cancer can happen anywhere on the body, even places that aren’t always exposed to the sun such as your scalp, the bottoms of your feet, under the scrotum, and between your thighs.  So check yourself out and make sure you know your body and moles. 

Mineral Versus Chemical Sunscreen

Protection is key to avoiding the risk of skin cancer and sunscreen is one of the best ways to protect yourself. “Sunblock” is a physical, mineral sunscreen (often with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) that physically protects the skin by sitting on top of it and ‘reflecting’ the UV damaging rays - not allowing them to penetrate the skin.  I strongly recommend physical sunscreen formulas because they block UVA and UVB rays. 

Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, work by allowing the UV rays to absorb into skin but changing them into non-damaging wavelengths of light and intensity, thus reducing the damage caused.  Chemical sunscreens degrade with sunlight so require MORE reapplication, plus they can cause irritation in several people.  So, I prefer physical sunscreens which have zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as their active ingredient. 

Top Summer Safety Tips

  • My first summer tip is to stay out of the sun, especially before 10 o’clock in the morning when the UV radiation is the highest. Even sunscreen is not enough to completely protect you from the sun’s UV rays. To avoid getting burned, I say no to sunbathing and absolutely no tanning beds. There is a 25x increase in Melanoma in people who use tanning beds, so in order to protect yourself stay out of the sun and away from the tanning beds!
  • My second tip is to always use sunscreen, even if you are not spending your day in the sun.  A light moisturizer with sunscreen is easy to use everyday – there is a million of them out there. I always say to apply a 30 SPF minimum as a part of your daily skincare routine. Using 30 SPF blocks out 98% of UV rays, and anything higher gives you that extra 2% (which isn’t significant). So, an SPF 30 is great and sufficient!
  • My third summer tip is if you are spending your day outside in the sun then it is important to reapply sunscreen every 3 hours and to wear a thicker sunscreen. When choosing a sunscreen, I recommend using a physical blocker instead of a chemical blocker because it does a better job at delivering broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays.  Re-application is key – especially if you are swimming or sweating which tends to wash off your sunscreen.
  • My last summer tip is to always cover your face! Wear a hat and stay in the shade…why let the sun AGE your face?  It’s important to remember that SPF protection should be worn at all times, not just when you’re going to the beach – it doesn’t matter if you’re just walking from your car to the grocery store, you need to be wearing sun protection to protect your skin.

Sun Protection Recommendations

Sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer and the aging of the skin! Be sure to use sunscreen on all parts of exposed skin (like your hands, chest and arms) and not just your face. I like the light body lotions that have SPF in them, and I use them on my arms and chest especially. I use them everyday even if I am not going to the beach or going to be outdoors because these parts of my body are exposed to the sun via the car window etc.

In addition to yearly screenings, avoiding the sun, and using sunscreen, I recommend incorporating antioxidants into your skin care regimen. Antioxidants absorb the free radical damage that you get from UV light and other environmental factors. Vitamin C, Vitamin E, Green Tea and coffeeberry are all powerful antioxidants that are going to help alleviate accumulated UV damage to skin. Also, for those with a history of skin cancer, I like to incorporate enzymes that help reverse cellular photodamage.

Bottom line: Wear your sunscreen daily and see a dermatologist if you see something suspicious or have a family history of skin cancer!

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published