Health Break | Published May 29, 2006 | Written by Tara Baney, RN, MS, AOCN

Simple Precautions Can Decrease Rish of Skin Cancer

With the warm weather beginning to arrive, we all are anxious to spend more time outdoors. It feels great to be outside in the sun until that evening when you realize that you did not apply any sunscreen and you now have a bad sunburn. How many times has this happened to you at the beginning of warm weather season?

Overexposure to the sun can sometimes lead to skin cancer. There are three types of skin cancer that can occur: squamous cell (SCC), basal cell (BCC) and melanoma. SCC and BCC are usually superficial lesions that only require local excision if caught early. Melanoma is a much more aggressive type of skin cancer that often spreads to other parts of the body.

Most skin cancers are caused by unprotected ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure to the area of skin that develops the cancer. Most of this radiation comes from sunlight, but some may come from artificial sources such as tanning booths. Some of this exposure may have occurred within the few years of the development of the cancer. Many cancers, however, may be caused by exposures that happened many years earlier.

Children and young adults often receive a lot of intense sun exposure that may not result in an actual cancer for many years or decades. Repeated and unprotected sun exposure over many years increases the person's risk of skin cancer.

Other than sun exposure, other factors may also predispose a person to the development of a skin cancer. Some of these risk factors may include:

  • Fair skin

  • Fair hair

  • Blue eyes

  • Family or personal history of skin cancer

All of us must be careful when outdoors, but if you have any of these risk factors you should take extra precautions to protect yourself from sun exposure.

Sunscreen is one of the easy ways to protect our skin from sun exposure. However, not all sunscreens are created equally.

The American Academy of Dermatology recommends, regardless of skin type, that all people should wear a broad spectrum sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of, at least, 15 and use it year round.

The SPF lets you gauge how long the sunscreen will protect your skin from ultraviolet B rays not ultraviolet A rays, which are also responsible for skin damage. For UVA protection the sunscreen must have either parasol 1789 or a blocker such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

When purchasing a sunscreen, you should ensure that it protects against UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen should be applied a half an hour before going into the sun and at frequent intervals.

Along with using sunscreen, limiting your time outdoors to before 10 a.m. or after 4 p.m. will limit your exposure to the UV rays at the most intense time of the day.

You can also find clothing that has SPF ratings and will provide protection from the sun. Wearing a long sleeve shirt, pants, hat with a large brim, and sunglasses are other ways to limit your sun exposure.

Lastly, many people think that sun exposure is bad but tanning beds are safe, which is incorrect. Tanning beds will expose a person to the same damaging ultraviolet rays as sun exposure. Tanning beds should be avoided.

By taking these few simple precautions, you can decrease your risk of developing a skin cancer. However, if you do develop a suspicious lesion, consult with your physician.

You can obtain more information on skin cancer through the American Cancer Society or through the American Academy of Dermatology.

Tara Baney is the clinical nurse specialist for the Penn State Cancer Institute at Mount Nittany Medical Center.