The Sun and Skin Cancer: Protection = Prevention

ByABC News via logo
June 21, 2002, 12:03 PM

June 21 -- Despite all we know about the sun's damaging rays and how just a few unprotected beach days can come back to haunt us, skin cancer is on the rise.

The U.S. Food and Drug administration estimates that approximately one million Americans each year will be stricken with this potentially deadly disease, which is the most common of all types of cancers.

Lucky for most, the vast majority of these cases will be either basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas, which are treatable and usually not life-threatening when caught in their early stages. Those who develop melanoma however, are not so fortunate approximately 25 percent of melanoma patients will be killed by their disease.

And what is the No. 1 cause of all skin cancers? You guessed it the sun.

The Sun's Rays

Sunlight is made up in part by invisible ultraviolet rays, UVA and UVB, which can have both short and long-term effects on the skin.

Aside from the immediate potential sunburn, UV exposure over time, even without burning, leads to DNA damage and a breakdown of the makeup and function of skin cells, disrupting the repair systems which normally guard the skin from injury. As time progresses, damage accumulates and the cells begin to divide and grow abnormally, ultimately becoming cancerous.

Remember a sunburn is really a first degree radiation burn, and an obvious sign of the sun's harmful properties.

While both UVA and B radiation contribute to cancer and the unsightly effects of aging, UVB rays are thought to be the more dangerous of the two, and are primarily responsible for sunburns and to a lesser degree, suntans. And although these beams only penetrate the outermost layers of the skin, some experts believe they are the main culprit behind deadly melanomas.

UVA rays are less likely to burn the skin, yet they penetrate deeper, causing damage to the underlying connective tissue as well as to the skin's surface. The FDA points out, however, that UVA is likely more dangerous than once thought, and that there is really no such thing as "safe" UV rays.