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Here Comes the Sun—And the Dangers of Skin Cancer

Summer is the time for fun in the sun—the beach, the park, the hiking trails, the baseball field… even just sitting on the porch enjoying a tall glass of lemonade. It’s also time to protect against the danger to your skin posed by the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

Skin cancer (also known as melanoma) is the most common cancer in the United States; in fact, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70. Experts warn that repeated sunburns raise your risk of developing melanoma. Even one blistering sunburn in childhood or adolescence increases your chance of developing the cancer later in life; five or more sunburns more than doubles your risk.

Even if you don’t get a sunburn, the UV rays can pose a threat, as the damaging effects are cumulative over a lifetime. The American Cancer Society and Skin Cancer Foundation recommend these protective practices to avoid melanoma:

  1. Cover up: Wear clothing that covers exposed skin, such as long-sleeve shirts and pants or skirts.
  2. Slather on the sunscreen. Sunscreens with broad-spectrum protection and with sun protection factor (SPF) values of 30 or higher are recommended. Reapply it every 2 hours but sooner if you are swimming or sweating.
  3. Wear a hat: A hat with a 2- to 3-inch brim (or wider) protects areas that are often exposed to the sun, such as the ears, eyes, forehead, nose, and scalp.
  4. Put on the shades: Wrap-around sunglasses protect the eyes and skin around them. UV-blocking sunglasses protect the delicate skin around the eyes, as well as the eyes themselves.
  5. Limit your exposure: Stay out of direct sunlight, especially between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when UV light is strongest. Don’t be fooled by cloudy or hazy days—the UV rays can still reach you.
  6. Enjoy the great outdoors—but under the cover of shade.
  7. Be careful on or near the water: Be especially careful on the beach because sand and water reflect sunlight, increasing the amount of UV radiation you get. Also, UV rays can reach below the water’s surface, so you can still get a burn even if you’re in the ocean, lake, or pool.
  8. Keep newborns out of the sun: Use sunscreen on babies over the age of six months.
  9. Never use tanning beds: The American Cancer Society warns that UV rays in tanning beds are just as dangerous as those produced by the sun. About 400,000 cases of skin cancer in the U.S. each year are linked to indoor tanning. A single session in a tanning bed can increase the chances for melanoma—the deadliest type of skin cancer—by 20 percent; the risk spikes by 75 percent when tanning beds are used before age 35.

The good news is that when detected early, the 5-year survival rate for melanoma is 99 percent. That is why the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends seeing a dermatologist once a year—or more often if you are at a higher risk of skin cancer—for a full-body, professional skin exam.

The American Cancer Society also recommends conducing a full-body self-exam of your skin from head-to-toe every month to look for abnormalities. For instructions on how to perform an exam, click here.