The Importance of Skin Cancer Awareness

As we head outdoors to enjoy the warmer temperatures, protecting your skin and skin cancer awareness are more important that ever. A recent study confirmed that skin cancer is truly an epidemic in the United States. It is estimated that more than 8,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, and the rate of melanoma diagnosed has doubled from 1982-2011, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. Protection from sun exposure is important all year round, not just during the summer or at the beach, and there’s no better time to start than today!

Ultraviolet (UV) rays can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays can also reflect off surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. are the most hazardous for UV exposure in the continental United States. UV rays are the greatest during the late spring and early summer in North America.

The Centers for Disease Control and American Academy of Dermatology recommends easy options for sun protection—

  • Use sunscreen with sun protective factor (SPF) 30 or above, and products containing both UVA and UVB protection, sometimes labeled “broad spectrum.”
  • Wear clothing to protect exposed skin.
  • Consider a hat with a wide brim to shade the face, head, ears and neck, often vulnerable areas.
  • Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block as close to 100% of both UVA and UVB rays if possible.
  • Seek shade, especially during mid-day hours.

The sun’s UV rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. Putting on sunscreen before heading outdoors is a great idea. Don’t forget to put a thick layer on all parts of exposed skin. Get help for hard to reach places like your back.

  • How sunscreen works: Most sun protection products work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering sunlight. They contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. All products do not have the same ingredients; if your skin reacts badly to one product, try another or consult your doctor for suggestions that may work best for you.
  • SPF: Sunscreens are assigned a sun protection factor (SPF) number that rates their effectiveness in blocking UV rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection. You should use a sunscreen with at least SPF 30.
  • Reapplication: Sunscreen wears off. Put it on again if you stay out in the sun for more than two hours, and after you swim or do activities that make you sweat, such as gardening.
  • Expiration date: Check the sunscreen’s expiration date. Sunscreen without an expiration date has a shelf life of no more than three years, shorter if exposed to high temperatures.
  • Cosmetics: Some make-up and lip balms contain some of the same chemicals used in sunscreens. This is added protection, but make-up should not solely be used unless it contains SPF 30. Read your labels!

Loose-fitting long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from tightly woven fabric offer the best protection for the sun’s UV rays. A wet t-shirt offers much less UV protection than a dry one. Darker colors may offer more protection than lighter colors. If wearing this type of clothing is impractical, at least try to wear a t-shirt, or beach cover-up. Keep in mind that a typical shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15, so this is where adding sunscreen comes in handy for extra protection.

For the most protection, wear a hat with a brim all the way around that shades your face, ears, and the back of your neck. A tightly woven fabric such as canvas works best to protect your skin from UV rays. Avoid straw hats with holes that allow sunlight through. A darker hat may offer additional UV protection. If you wear a baseball cap, you should also protect your ears and the back of your neck by using SPF 30 or greater sunscreen.

Sunglasses protect your eyes from the UV rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. They also protect the tender skin around your eyes from sun exposure. Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB rays offer the best protection. Most sunglasses sold in the U.S., regardless of cost, meet this standard. Wrap-around sunglasses work best because they block UV rays from sneaking in from the side.

You can reduce your risk of skin damage, and skin cancer, by seeking shade under a tree, umbrella, or other shelter. Your best bet is to protect your skin by using sunscreen, wearing protective clothing, and seeking shade when outside for long periods of time.

–Kerry N. Clay, Community Health Educator, Sentara Virginia Beach General Hospital & Sentara Princess Anne Hospital