The weather is getting warmer, which means you’ll be wanting to get outside more. But is it safe to soak up some sunshine? How serious do you need to be about protecting your skin? Are you at risk for developing skin cancer? Discover some helpful tips and strategies for guarding your skin’s health through all seasons.
Skin cancer is caused by the abnormal growth of skin cells, because of your skin’s exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. Most of your exposure to UV light comes from sunlight, although tanning beds are also sources of UV light. Because of this, skin cancer is most common in areas of your body that are more exposed to sunlight, like the scalp, face, ears, neck, chest, shoulders, arms and hands. For women, skin cancer is also common on their legs, while for men, the torso is a frequent location for skin cancer. People of all ages, genders, skin tones and body types can develop skin cancer. However, there are some higher risk groups. You are at higher risk if you are over 50 years old, have a history of sunburns (5 or more), are fair-skinned, have light hair or eyes, have a family history of skin cancer, spend time in tanning beds, or have a compromised immune system from something like an organ transplant.
Whether you are in a high risk group or not, you should take steps to protect yourself from skin cancer. The best tool you have in fighting skin cancer is prevention. First, protect your skin from UV light. Stay away from tanning beds. There’s no such thing as a healthy tan. Tans are signs that your skin cells have been damaged by UV light. You have a 75% increased chance of developing potentially fatal melanoma (the most lethal form of skin cancer) with just one visit to a tanning bed before the age of 35. And not only does the damage from UV light increase your risk for developing skin cancer, but it also prematurely ages skin, leading to wrinkles and permanent pigmentation issues.
It’s also important to protect your skin from sunlight. This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy lots of time outdoors. But it does mean that you should take measures to limit your skin’s exposure to sunlight. This is true on cloudy and hazy days as well as sunny days -- UV light can penetrate cloud cover. Sun protection is also important during the colder months, especially if you are spending time outside when it is snowy -- sunlight reflects off of the snow and can cause significant sun damage. At least 80% of the sun’s rays reflect off of sand, water and snow, causing almost double the exposure to your skin. And don’t forget the sun exposure you get while in the car. Windshields usually contain UV blockers, but car door windows do not. You can get clear UV filters for your car door window. And if you are driving for long periods of time, protect the left side of your body from the sunlight that is coming through the windows.
So, what should you do? If you’re going to be outside for a while, wear protective clothing, even when it’s hot. The more coverage the better -- long sleeves, long pants or skirts. You can use the tips below to help you pick clothings that is both protective and suited to the weather. Dark and bright colored clothing does the best at protecting your skin from UV rays -- it absorbs the sunlight rather than allowing it to penetrate the fabric. Denser fabrics are also better at covering your skin from UV rays. Hold up a piece of clothing to the sunlight -- if you can see light coming through, UV rays are able to penetrate the clothing. Loose-fitting clothing is recommended, as tight-fitting clothes can stretch the cloth’s fibers and allow UV light to come through. Wet clothing also compromises the fabric’s ability to block UV rays. The type of fabric you are wearing is significant for sunlight blocking. Choose unbleached cotton (has natural UV absorbers), shiny polyesters and lightweight satiny silks (reflect radiation), or fabrics treated with chemical UV absorbers or dyes to prevent some penetration from UV rays.
When you are outside, wear a broad-brimmed hat and protective eyewear. As much as 5-10% of all skin cancers are on the eyelid. UV radiation can also lead to macular generation, cataracts, and corneal sunburn or “snow blindness”. The Skin Cancer Foundation suggests using a hat with at least a 3-inch brim, as it can block up to 50% of UV rays from your eyes and eyelids. Wearing hats is especially important if you have thinning hair, are bald or have a part in your hair. Your scalp can get burned and develop skin cancer. If you aren’t wearing a hat, use sunscreen on the areas of your head that will be exposed to the sun. Don’t forget to rub sunscreen onto the skin exposed by a part in your hair. You should also wear protective eyewear that blocks 99% of UVA and UVB light. You can look for the Skin Cancer Foundation’s seal of approval on sunglasses.
When your skin isn’t protected by clothing, wear sunscreen. This is especially true of your face, which is usually uncovered and receives a daily onslaught of UV rays. Dermatologists highly recommend using a daily broad-spectrum sunscreen or moisturizer with an SPF of 30 or higher. Even lower SPFs are helpful though. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that daily use of SPF 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of having squamous cell carcinoma by about 40% and lower your melanoma (one of the types of skin cancer) risk by 50%. The kind of sunscreen you wear isn’t as important as wearing it regularly. So, pick a sunscreen you like and wear it daily -- SPF of 15 for days when you are only in the sun for short periods of time and an SPF of 30 or higher for days when you are in the sun more or when you are in the sun when it’s the strongest. When you apply it to your entire body, you should use as much as would fit in a shot glass. And you should reapply every 2 hours and immediately after sweating a lot or being in the water.
Set up an appointment with one of the board-certified dermatologists at Vanguard Dermatology in the greater New York City area. At Vanguard, you can get a skin cancer screening, direction on how to perform a skin cancer check, or expert skin cancer treatment.