Skin Cancer from the Sun Explained
In order to best protect ourselves, it’s important to be aware of the risks that harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun can cause, including skin damage and in some cases, skin cancer.
From relaxing by the pool to traveling to beautiful beaches, there’s no better time to enjoy the outdoors. As we soak up summertime, we must continue to be diligent about our sun care routines.
Does the sun really cause skin cancer?
Absolutely. But more accurately, misunderstanding the power of direct sunlight and its ability to damage skin at the molecular level, and failing to properly prepare for it, is what really causes skin cancer.
Concerns about sun exposure go far beyond the result of sunburn or peeling skin. The greatest concern about exposing our skin to the harmful rays of the sun is the heightened risk for skin damage and in some cases, skin cancer, which is the most common cancer of all types. Both men and women are at risk for skin cancer.
How does the sun cause skin cancer?
When anyone allows the sun to directly affect areas of their skin, a few things occur on the cellular level. The simplest explanation is that the sun breaks down DNA and disrupts normal skin cell function. This disruption can cause the cell to mutate and begin to grow and divide uncontrollably. Mutations like this are the main way that all cancers start in the body.
Is all skin cancer caused by the sun?
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma. All of these are caused by too much sun exposure and therefore, too little sun protection.
There are other less common predispositions that may lead to skin cancers such as rare genetic disorders, fragile skin, advanced age, fair complexion or freckles, actinic keratosis or a weakened or compromised immune system.
How to Have Fun in the Sun and Still Stay Safe
A safe summer in the sun is still possible. Preventing sunburn and sun damage starts with limiting sun exposure. Sunblock should always be worn when you plan to be exposed to the sun. You should look for a sunblock that is at least SPF 30, sweat-proof, waterproof and one that blocks UVA and UVB rays. In addition, you should seek sunblock that contains helioplex, zinc oxide or titanium oxide. You should always make sure that you don’t forget to apply sunblock to the most commonly missed spots: the part in the hair, tops of the ears, back of the neck and lips. You should also reapply to the arms and face after 45–60 minutes of activity.
There are many misconceptions about tanning, sunscreen and sun exposure.
- Misconception No. 1: A tan is your body’s response to protect itself from too much sun. The truth is that tanned skin only gives you about an SPF 5 protection.
- Misconception No. 2: Darker skin doesn’t need sunscreen or shade. The truth is that dark skin also burns, and long-term sun exposure causes wrinkles, sagging and apparent skin aging.
- Misconception No. 3: Sweat-proof or waterproof sunscreen doesn’t need to be replaced. The truth is that intense exercise or activities can make your sunscreen ineffective in about an hour.
- Misconception No. 4: If you tan, you don’t need sunscreen. The truth is that everyone should protect their skin with sunscreen.
5 Tips for Preventing Skin Cancer
Through practicing sun safety and other prevention methods, you can protect your skin from more than just sun damage. Full sun safety begins with following a few simple skin cancer prevention tips, including:
- Avoid indoor tanning beds.
- Limit time in the sun when UV light is the strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day.
- Protect your eyes. Use sunglasses that have UVA/UVB protection.
- Wear broad-spectrum sunscreen on any exposed areas of skin and reapply after every two hours when in direct sun.
- Wear protective clothing that protects your skin from direct sun. To keep cool, wear lighter colors that reflect light rather than dark colors, which absorb light and retain heat.
Pro tip: Another very important sun safety practice is performing a skin checkup. Skin checkups can result in the early detection of skin cancer.
Skin Cancer Warning Signs
Skin cancer has a variety of symptoms and varying levels of severity. In general, some common symptoms of skin cancer include a mole that itches or is sore, a mole that oozes, bleeds or becomes crusty, a mole that looks different from other moles, a sore that doesn’t heal or a mole that becomes red or swollen at its edges.
If you discover symptoms of skin cancer and need care, the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center is home to exceptional services as well as world-class physicians.
“The Cancer Center is a great resource for Greater Cincinnatians,” said William Barrett, MD, co-director of the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center, chair of the Department of Radiation Oncology at the UC College of Medicine and a UC Health physician.
Recognizing Risk Factors of Melanoma
Melanoma is a serious type of skin cancer that usually occurs in areas of the body exposed to the sun and is more likely to spread throughout the body. Melanoma is the most common cause of death from cancer in women 25 to 30, but when detected early can have a very high cure rate.
Melanomas can be treated with either a local or systematic approach. This includes surgery and radiation. The surgical method is the most common way to treat melanoma. Systemic approaches are used to destroy or control cancer cells that may have traveled around the body. For example, when taken through pill or injection, chemotherapy is a systemic treatment, as is immunotherapy.
The ABCDE Rule for Recognizing Melanoma or Cancerous Mole
More specifically, symptoms of an early-stage melanoma are often a change in an existing mole or the appearance of a new mole. The ABCDE rule can help distinguish a normal mole from one that might be cancerous. This rule clearly lays out the specifics of the symptoms and stands for the following:
- Asymmetry: One half does not match the other half.
- Border irregularity: The edges of the mole are ragged or irregular.
- Color: Varies from one area to another and may contain shades of black and brown or sometimes patches of white, red or blue.
- Diameter: Mole is bigger than 6 millimeters across, about half the size of a pencil eraser.
- Evolving: The mole is changing in shape or color.
“At the University of Cincinnati Cancer Center, our skin cancer team includes researchers, surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, diagnostic radiologists, pathologists and dermatologists. This group has exceptional expertise and is at the forefront of advancements in the field,” Dr. Barrett said.
To schedule an appointment with one of our dermatologists, please call 513-475-7630.