Posted on: May 4, 2015
Surprising Facts About Year-Round Skin Cancer Risks…
…And Tips to Protect Yourself
By Dr. Stuart Zweibel
Did you know that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States? Now, a recent study from the Centers of Disease Control (CDC) finds an increase of 50 percent in the average annual number of adults treated for skin cancer. We all know how and when to protect our skin – or do we? It’s essential to know the risk factors for skin cancer and the best forms of protection. That’s particularly important during times, such as hazy days and winter, when many of us underestimate the risks to our skin from sun, and therefore relax our necessary safeguards.
Skin cancer occurs in two forms: melanoma and non-melanoma. Non-melanoma cancers, which are the most common, are almost always caused by sun exposure. For the more dangerous melanoma, genetics plays a larger role in determining your risk.
When we talk about sun exposure, we refer to the effect of three types of ultraviolet (UV) light – or radiation – on our skin: UVA, UVB and UVC. Skin cancer can develop when these skin-penetrating rays damage the DNA of our skin cells.
UVC is filtered out by the ozone layer. UVB causes sunburns and tans. While less UVA enters our atmosphere than UVB, it penetrates our skin deeply enough to potentially cause skin cancer. That’s why using “broad-spectrum” sunscreen is so important – only this type guards against both A and B.
Sunburn occurs when intense exposure to sun causes inflammation of the skin. Tanning is our body’s natural “sunscreen,” in which the skin’s pigment-producing cells increase production of pigment (in the form of the chemical compound melanin) to block harmful UV radiation. Sunburn is a visible sign of damage to the skin cells’ DNA. But while tanning may not produce inflammation, DNA damage has taken place.
The majority of people who develop a melanoma have a genetic predisposition to the disease. For non-melanoma skin cancers, which are primarily caused by sun exposure, skin type becomes the dominant risk factor. You probably know that people with very pale or “porcelain” skin are at increased risk for skin damage from sun. In reality, four skin types are at greatest risk. The first two will not surprise you – very pale skin that always burns and pale skin that tans minimally. But also vulnerable is skin that tans uniformly and only sometimes burns mildly, as well as skin that always gets the proverbial “beautiful” tan, with no burning.
Here is how I advise patients about skin cancer risks throughout the year,
and my best tips for protection:
Best year-round protection: Only use broad-spectrum protection with an SPF of 30 or higher. Even if a product is labeled as such, check that it contains the necessary ingredients meroxyl – sometimes called ecamsule – and avobenzone, which can be called parsol 1789. The Anthelios brand is one example of a very effective broad-spectrum sunscreen.
High-risk scenarios in winter: Those enjoying outdoor sports in winter, particularly skiers and snowboarders, need to know that snow reflects UV rays and that higher altitudes mean slightly higher UV penetration. That makes sunscreen and lip protection vital, especially during spring skiing at higher altitudes. This is the case even when temperatures are low and it seems that sun exposure is not an issue. What’s more, winter’s low humidity and wind exposure can dry and irritate the skin, making moisturizers another key protection.
Are we at risk on overcast days? Radiation does penetrate on cloudier days. However, most people don’t realize that hazy days create significant UV ray exposure. People are fooled due to the seeming lack of intensity of the sun.
What times of day present greater risk from UV radiation? During warm weather, the peak time is between 10 am and 4 pm. In winter in our latitude, peak UV radiation occurs around 11 am to 3 pm. That means you need sunscreen protection at certain times year-round.
When to apply: Sunscreen takes up to an hour to be fully effective. The biggest mistake people make is to get settled on the beach, and only after 15 minutes, have someone apply sunscreen to their back. By then, they will probably develop a burn from the exposure.
How much to apply: Most people apply far too little sunscreen. The average adult needs approximately one ounce to be protected.
Where to apply: Everywhere that is exposed – make sure to get it in your ears and behind your ears. Protecting the nose is critical. 15 to 20 percent of all skin cancers occur on the nose. Protect your lips with balm or Chapstick with sun protection. If your clothing is sheer, apply sunscreen to your entire body. Wear sunglasses, a hat and protective clothing.
Protecting children: Do not use sunscreen on babies under one year old. If needed, use protective clothing and consider using a non-chemical sunblock. However, be aware of recent suggestions that certain chemical-free blocks are ground so finely, they might enter the skin. So ask your pediatrician’s advice before using this type of sunblock on a child.
By Stuart Zweibel, MD, PhD, is a board certified dermatologist and dermatologic surgeon specializing in skin cancer, laser surgery and cosmetic dermatology. Dr. Zweibel served as the Chief of the Division of Dermatology at Northern Westchester Hospital from 1999 to 2007. He has been recognized as a ‘Best Doctor’ in both New York Magazine and Westchester Magazine.
Dr. Zweibel is a graduate of Cornell University and completed his graduate studies at Temple University School of Medicine and Harvard School of Public Health earning a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology.
He graduated from Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He completed his residency at Brown University and a fellowship in Mohs and Dermatologic Surgery under Dr. Mohs in the department of Surgery at the University of Wisconsin Hospital.