Excessive exposure to the sun and other sources of ultraviolet (UV) radiation is clearly associated with a higher risk of multiple forms of skin cancer. Since skin cancer is diagnosed in over one million Americans every year (and rising), experts from the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the American Academy of Dermatology, the National Comprehensive Cancer Network, and many other organizations are unanimous in strongly recommending that you should reduce your time in the sun.
That sounds simple, but how much sun is too much? Who is most at risk? What are the most effective ways to protect yourself? Here are answers to frequently asked questions about sun safety.
Am I at risk for skin cancer?
People of all races and skin colors can develop skin cancer, but some are more susceptible than others. If you have one or more of the following risk factors, you should be especially vigilant about reducing your UV exposure:
- Fair skin
- Blue, green, or hazel eyes
- Blond or red hair
- Moles (especially 50 or more)
- Family or personal history of skin cancer
- More listed here
When and where is the sun most dangerous?
UV radiation from the sun is especially damaging under certain conditions, including the following:
- from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
- from mid-Spring through mid-Fall
- at latitudes nearer the equator (for example, Florida)
- at higher altitudes
- when there is no thick cloud cover (and clouds only block 20% of UV rays)
- near water, snow, or other highly reflective surfaces
Sun damage accumulates over time, so if you find yourself in these conditions often, consistent protection is a must. Remember that besides skin cancer, the sun can also cause cataracts and other eye problems, a weakened immune system, unsightly skin spots, wrinkles, and "leathery" skin.
What is the most effective way to protect myself?
If you answered "sunscreen," you're wrong. The most effective way actually is to simply stay out of the summer sun in the middle of the day. If that's not possible, wearing dark, tightly-woven clothing and a wide-brimmed hat also works. Only then comes sunscreen, which isn't a panacea and shouldn't be exclusively relied upon. Here are some more tips to protect yourself:
- Wear sunglasses that include a warranty stating they provide 99-100% UVA and UVB (broad-spectrum) protection.
- Apply one ounce (a palm full) of sunscreen to all exposed skin 15 minutes before venturing outdoors. The sunscreen container should specify a sun protection factor (SPF) rating of 15 or above and should state that it provides broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection. Lotion- or cream-based sunscreens tend to adhere to the skin longer, thus providing better protection.
- PABA-free sunscreens are recommended for persons with sensitive skin. Susceptible individuals may also want to avoid oxybenzone and dioxbenzone. Products that contain avobenzone (Parsol 1789), ecamsule, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide are considered broad spectrum sunscreens and are thus offer protection against UVB and most UVA rays, as well as help reduce the development of wrinkles and skin aging.
- Depending on your activity (swimming, sweating), sunscreen should be re-applied at least every two hours.
- The SPF number on the sunscreen indicates how many times longer, under ideal conditions, a person can stay out in the sun without beginning to turn red in comparison with the amount of time totally unprotected skin would start to burn. Research indicates these numbers are sometimes overstated.
- Avoid tanning salons, beds, and sunlamps.
Do children need extra protection?
Yes. Up to 50% of an individual's lifetime contact with sunshine occurs before adulthood. Studies also show that the more incidents of sunburn kids have, the higher likelihood that they will develop skin cancer decades later. So it is especially critical to protect them from the sun. Here are a few tips:
- Babies 6 months of age or younger should be kept completely out of the direct sun at all times. In addition, sunscreen shouldn't be applied to babies this age.
- For children over 6 months, apply sunscreen every time they go outside.
- Children's swimsuits made from sun-protective fabric and designed to cover the child from the neck to the knees are popular in Australia. They are now available in some areas of the United States.
Are tanning salons healthier than the sun?
No. Tanning lamps give out UVA and frequently UVB rays as well and so can cause serious long-term skin damage and contribute to skin cancer. Remember, tanning is a sign of skin damage and does nothing to protect the skin from further injury. Experts recommend that you prioritize your health over vanity and avoid tanning salons altogether.
The sun causes an estimated 90% of skin cancer cases. Reducing your exposure to UV radiation now is a simple, easy, and effective way to prevent a potentially devastating cancer later.
"SunWise Program." Environmental Protection Agency. 15 September 2008.
"How Do I Protect Myself from UV Rays?" American Cancer Society. 15 September 2008.
"Facts about sunscreens." American Academy of Dermatology. 14 September 2008.
"Skin Cancer Prevention Program." California Department of Public Health. 14 September 2008.