Take Action to Protect Your Skin from the Sun

By Emily Burnett, Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern, Contributing Writer; Brian O’Shea, Staff Writer; photos by Paige Kefauver, Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern, Staff Photographer
 Student applying sunscreen

Julianne Heberlein, Werner H. Kirsten Student Intern, is wearing a protective hat and sunglasses as she applies sunscreen to prevent overexposure to the sun’s UV rays.

Soaking up the sun’s rays may give you a great tan, but it may increase your risk of skin cancer in the future. This is especially true if, for example, you have lighter skin or a family history of skin cancer. Any change to the color of your skin indicates damage from ultraviolet (UV) rays, which can lead to skin cancer. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), skin cancer is most common type of cancer diagnosed in the United States.

Statistics from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) show that only 2 percent of all skin cancers are melanoma, but melanoma is the cause of most skin cancer–related deaths. Skin cancer is composed of basal and squamous cells, and begins in the outer layer of the skin. These types of cells are often referred to as non-melanoma skin cancer cells and usually respond to treatment without spreading to other parts of the body. However, melanoma is more aggressive, and if it is not detected early, it is prone to invading nearby tissues and spreading to other parts of the body.

Melanoma Cases Continue to Increase

NCI indicates that the number of new cases of melanoma is predicted to be 73,870 in 2016; this number reflects 4.5 percent of all new cancer cases in the United States. According to the Office of the Surgeon General, as many as 90 percent of melanoma cases are thought to be caused by overexposure to UV rays from the sun, which is the most preventable cause of skin cancer.

Approximately 2.1 percent of men and women will be diagnosed with melanoma at some point during their lifetime. Although this percentage may seem low, according to the Surgeon General’s Quick Facts, one out of every three Americans reports getting sunburned each year. Sunburn is a clear sign of overexposure to UV rays, which can increase the risk of developing melanoma.

This concern received national attention last year, after the Surgeon General published The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer to address skin cancer as a major public health problem.

What Are the Risk Factors?

According to the CDC, people with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer. Some general risk factors include a lighter natural skin color; family history of skin cancer; a personal history of skin cancer; exposure to the sun through work and play; a history of sunburns; a history of indoor tanning; skin that sunburns easily; blue or green eyes; blond or red hair; and certain types or a large number of moles.

National Goals to Help Prevent Skin Damage

The Surgeon General has identified several goals to promote skin damage prevention in the United States. One goal is to create more options for sun protection in outdoor settings, such as increasing the accessibility of sun protection for people who work outdoors and increasing the amount of shade in outdoor recreational settings.

Another goal is to keep people informed about the risks of UV exposure. An example would be integrating sun safety into workplace health education.

Reducing the risks from indoor tanning represents another goal, and the Surgeon General’s suggested strategy includes enforcing previously implemented indoor tanning laws and possibly creating additional restrictions.

A fourth goal is to strengthen the research, monitoring, and evaluation related to skin cancer prevention. A start to achieving this goal is to increase the country’s understanding of skin cancer and its connection to UV radiation.

Do Not Rely on Sunscreen Alone

According to the World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), sunscreen should not be the sole agent for skin cancer prevention, but should be combined with a number of other actions. These include wearing tightly woven protective clothing that sufficiently covers the body, avoiding outdoor activities when the sun is at its peak, and wearing a hat that provides adequate shade to the entire head.

Sarah Hooper, manager of Occupational Health Services, said, “Moderation is the key to life. Making good choices about sun exposure and avoiding sunburn can reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.”