We know we’re supposed to limit sun exposure to prevent skin cancer and premature aging, but we also know we need to bask in its rays a bit to get Vitamin D. We can do both safely, dermatologists say. “I encourage people to be active and get outdoors, but to protect themselves, especially during peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” says Dr. Philip Kerr, chair of the dermatology department and director of the Melanoma Clinic at UConn Health.
Those light-eyed redheads with the fairest skin only need about 10 minutes of sun to get their daily dose of Vitamin D, while those with brown eyes and the darkest brown skin need at least 30 minutes, says Kerr, also an associate professor of dermatology and dermatopathology at UConn.
Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. and more people are diagnosed with the disease than all other forms of cancer combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. One in five people are expected to develop skin cancer by the age of 70, but caught early, it’s highly treatable. Undetected, it can be deadly, particularly its melanoma form. In the U.S., nearly 20 people die of skin cancer daily, the American Academy of Dermatology reports.
We can protect our skin by avoiding the sun, wearing protective clothing and sunglasses, and applying sunscreen if we’re going to be outside for more than a few minutes, says Dr. Mona Gohara, associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale University. Gohara recommends wide-brimmed hats that shade the face, neck and ears. Long-sleeve shirts with dark or bright colors and tighter weaves provide more protection than white shirts, she says.
Think your face is protected because you apply skin cream with SPF 15 daily? Think again. Sunscreen only works for two hours and has to be reapplied, she says. Mineral sunscreens made from zinc oxide or titanium dioxide block the sun from penetrating the skin, so no advance application is necessary. Apply chemical sunscreens, with an SPF of at least 30, a half-hour before sun exposure. Use a shot-glass amount over all exposed skin, including the tops of feet, backs of hands, ears, nose and scalp, she says. Don’t forget the lip balm containing sunscreen.
Is it safe to develop a tan gradually if you avoid getting burnt? “Tans are your body’s SOS that your skin is damaged,” she says. “Any time you can see your hand in front of your face, there’s enough ultraviolet light to cause skin aging, wrinkling or damage.”
It’s important to remember that skin cancer is preventable. “Ninety percent of skin cancer comes from too much exposure to ultraviolet light,” she says.
Melanoma rates among women ages 18 to 39 increased 800 percent from 1979 to 2009, reports the American Academy of Dermatology. Tanning beds, which deliver 12 times the amount of ultraviolet light as outdoor sun exposure, are largely to blame. “If you expose yourself to a tanning bed, you almost double your risk of melanoma,” Gohara says.
No matter your age, Kerr and Gohara recommend everyone do a full-body monthly skin check, looking for dark brown or black spots or changes in size, shape or color of a mole or skin lesion. A bump on the skin that bleeds easily and recurrently and doesn’t heal warrants a visit to your doctor, Kerr says.
Research shows that having a partner or friend to do a monthly check of your back, shoulders and the back of your neck and ears has been helpful in detecting skin abnormalities, Kerr says. “The upper back and shoulder area is most at risk for melanoma,” he says. Melanoma, the fifth most common cause of cancer death in the U.S., is much more likely to be fatal than the other skin cancers, Kerr says.
The two most common forms of skin cancer, basal cell and squamous cell, usually occur on the face and ears, he says.
Kerr and Gohara also recommend that people have their primary care physician check their skin at their annual checkup. Those with a family or personal history of skin cancer and those with fair skin are more at risk for skin cancer, so the American Academy of Dermatology recommends they see a board-certified dermatologist for an annual skin check.
Skin cancer stats
- Having 5 or more sunburns doubles the risk for melanoma.
- When detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent.
- The sun causes an estimated 90 percent of skin aging.
- People who use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher daily show 24 percent less skin aging than those who do not use sunscreen daily.
- Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer, with an estimated 4.3 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. annually.
- Squamous cell carcinoma is the second most common skin cancer, with more than 1 million cases diagnosed in the U.S. annually.
- Regular daily use of sunscreen with an SPF 15 or higher lowers the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma by about 40 percent.
- The ultraviolet radiation from tanning beds is a proven human carcinogen.
- Indoor tanning devices can emit UV radiation in amounts 10 to 15 times higher than the sun at peak intensity.
- Brazil and Australia have banned indoor tanning altogether. Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain and the United Kingdom have banned indoor tanning for people younger than age 18. In the U.S., 17 states and the District of Columbia ban indoor tanning for those under 18. Connecticut prohibits indoor tanning for those under 17.
- Women had the greatest increase for both types of non-melanoma skin cancer.
- Basal and squamous cell carcinoma rates are increasing in people under 40.
- Melanoma in Caucasian women under age 44 has increased 6.1 percent annually, and this is potentially linked to rises in indoor tanning.
- Melanoma rates in the U.S. doubled from 1982 to 2011 and have continued to increase.
- Caucasians and men older than 50 have a higher risk of developing melanoma than the general population.
Sources: The Skin Cancer Foundation and American Academy of Dermatology