The Sun and Skin Cancer: Protection = Prevention

June 21, 2002 -- 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.

And are tanning salons and UV lamps that emit mostly UVA light less harmful alternatives to the sun's rays? Experts say "No way".

"There is no such thing as a safe tan," dermatologist Dr. Sekula Rodriguez recently reported at a 2002 American Academy of Dermatology Skin Cancer gathering. "A tan is the skin's response to an injury and every time you tan you accumulate damage to the skin, as well as accelerate the aging process and increase your risk for skin cancer."

So, at best, those long, unprotected summer days will bestow you with the weathered, blotchy, scaly, rough and spotted look of premature aging. At worst — cancer.

And considering the fact that there is currently no repair treatment available for reversing the brutal effects of the suns rays on the skin, preventing damage before it occurs is easily the best approach to maintaining healthy skin.

Protection = Prevention

So what can we do for prevention? The answer is simple — block the sun!

It doesn't matter how — do it with creams, gels, hats, T-shirts, or even umbrellas. Better yet, use a combination strategy utilizing more than one method, which will better assure your protection.

Of course, people with fairer skin and hair should be more vigilant than most, but those who are dark skinned should keep in mind that experts estimate that approximately 40 percent of all melanomas worldwide strike non-whites.

Lotions and Creams

Sunblock and sunscreen products come in a variety of formulas including lotion, gels creams, and even oils. Technically, sunblocks repel UV radiation while sunscreens absorb it. For either type, what's most important is the level and kind of protection indicated.

The SPF, or Sun Protection Factor number, indicates how much longer you can stay in the sun than the approximate amount of time it would take you to get burned without protection. Experts recommend all skin types should wear an SPF of 15 or higher when outdoors during the day for more than about 15 minutes.

But the SPF number is applicable only to UVB radiation. For UVA protection, you must choose a product that specifies this on the label. The FDA points out that sunscreen does not prevent skin cancer, and that using a UVB-only product may be bad for health in the long run since it allows people to stay out longer and be exposed to more UVA rays over time.

For UVA protection, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) advises selecting a "broad-spectrum" sunscreen that contains benzophenones, oxybenzone, sulisobenzone, titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, and Parsol 1789 (butyl methoydibenzoylmethane, also called avobenzone).

And don't be stingy! Apply at least one shot glass full of product to exposed areas every 2-3 hours.


Cover-up clothing is another excellent way to block UV radiation, especially for those who don't care to bother with lotions. A number of companies now make specialty sun-blocking clothing which are very effective. Clothing may be rated by SPF or by UPF, Ultraviolet Protection Factor, which is also a multiplier of how much longer you can stay in the sun.

Other types of non-specialty clothing can also efficiently block the sun, but proceed with caution. The AAD warns that a wet, light-colored shirt can transmit almost as much light to the skin as no protection at all! To roughly estimate a garment's blocking abilities, hold the fabric up to a light source — the more light penetrates through the fabric, then the more UV radiation will likely penetrate as well.

Experts also recommend wearing hats with at least a 3-inch brim, and using sunscreen on all areas not covered by clothing.

Avoid Direct Exposure

The most effective yet most difficult strategy is to avoid direct sun exposure by staying indoors between the mid-day hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun's radiation is at its most powerful.

A more livable alternative is to seek a shady spot during these peak hours, or use a large beach umbrella or sun canopy. However, it's important to apply block even if the skin is not exposed to direct sunlight since indirect rays can reach under most shelters. Don't be fooled by clouds and haze. UV radiation easily penetrates both of these.

In the end, if preserving your wonderfully smooth and healthy complexion is not enough of a reward and you still crave a darker skin tone, try using one of the many new tan-in-a-bottle products. The new formulas offer major improvements over the orange blotchy results of products-past.

Your future skin will thank you.

To learn how to give yourself an at-home skin cancer self exam:

To find where you can receive a FREE skin cancer screening from a dermatologist in your area: