With temperatures improving as summer approaches, people are spending more and more time outdoors. This leads to an increased risk of skin damage, like burns, tans and cancer.
The sun is at its most powerful in the summer months, and its rays are most damaging between the hours of 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
There are three different kinds of Ultraviolet, or UV rays.
- UVA rays: These are the rays that cause people to tan. UVA rays penetrate into the lower layers of the epidermis. This triggers melanocytes to produce melanin, or the brown pigment that causes a tan.
- UVB rays: These are the rays that burn the upper layer of the epidermis, causing sunburn.
- UVC rays: These are the most dangerous of the sun’s rays. Fortunately, these rays are blocked by the ozone layer and do not reach Earth.
People spend more time outdoors when the weather is warm, and few people wear sunscreen when out. In fact, people are exposed to the most sun while doing everyday activities, not at the beach.
Younger people are increasingly exposed to the sun’s harmful rays without protection. Adolescents take less care applying sunscreen while outdoors.
“I wear sunscreen when I go to the pool or the beach for an extended period of time, but playing sports outside or at a barbeque, I never bother,” said Timothy Riphagen, 20.
In fact, 50-80% of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18.
It is a common misconception that a tan is better for your skin than sunburn. On the contrary, a sunburn shows that your skin is fighting the damage of the sun’s rays. A tan is visual proof that your skin has cellular damage
Despite the risks, the popularity of tanning is growing. Thirty million people tan indoors in the U.S. annually; 2.3 million of those people are adolescents.
In a recent poll by Teenshealth, 80% of people under age 25 think they look better with a tan.
“Most people who tan with us are college students between the ages of 18 and 24,” said Scott Bender, manager of Planet Beach Tanning Spa.
Tanning, however, increases the risk of skin cancer.
There are several different types of skin cancer.
- Basal cell carcinoma: This is the most common type of skin cancer, accounting for over 90% of all skin cancer diagnoses in the U.S. Though it is rare for this type of skin cancer to spread, it can grow, invade and damage surrounding tissue.
- Squamous cell carcinoma: This cancer occurs in the squamous cells, which are scaly and fish-like. Since squamous cells are found on the surface of the skin, the lining of the hollow body organs and in digestive and respiratory tracts, squamous cell carcinoma can actually occur on any of those parts of the body. It is only 25% as common as basal cell carcinoma. Squamous cell carcinoma can metasticize, or spread, to other parts of the body.
- Melanoma: This is the most dangerous type of skin cancer. Melanoma is the leading cause of death due to skin disease. It can spread very rapidly, but risk greatly decreases if it is caught early.
More than 1 million new cases of melanoma are diagnosed annually. In the past, melanoma mostly affected people in their mid- to late-fifties. However, the number of melanoma diagnoses of people in their teens and 20s is increasing.
The most common treatment for skin cancer is exision. This involves completely cutting the tumors and cancerous tissue out. Exisions performed to remove melanoma often leave large scars.
Some people are more at risk for skin cancer than others. People with any of the following should be especially aware of their sun exposure and take measures to avoid skin cancer.
- People with fair skin, meaning they have less than melanin than darker skin, have a greater risk for skin cancer because they have less of that protective layer. People who have naturally light hair, eyes or who freckle easily are also at greater risk.
- Excessive sun exposure increases your risk of skin cancer. Even if you were a “sun worshipper” when you were and now practice “safe sun,” there is still risk of skin cancer. Skin cancer can take years, even decades, to develop.
- If you have many moles, regular or irregular, you have an increased risk of skin cancer.
- If your family has a history of skin cancer, you are at an increased risk. Some families suffer from Familial Atypical Mole-Malignant Melanoma (FAMMM) syndrome. This puts you at increased risk of developing melanoma. Frequent screenings for the disease are a necessity.
- If you have had skin cancer in the past, it is more likely you will develop it again, often within two or three years of the original diagnosis.
- A weakened immune system also increases the risk of skin cancer. People living with leukemia, HIV/AIDS or people taking immunosuppressant drugs after an organ transplant are at increased risk.
Skin cancer is actually the easiest of all cancers to prevent.
To protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays, it is vital to wear sunscreen of SPF 15 or higher at all times. This should be applied 30 minutes before sun exposure to allow time for it to be absorbed.
Wear protective clothing, such as hats, sunglasses and darker clothes while outdoors.
Check your body for abnormal moles frequently. If you notice anything irregular, visit a dermatologist as soon as possible.
“I do look at moles sometimes and wonder if that was always there,” Riphagen said.
Ultraviolet rays do not have to be all bad. UV rays provide the body with vitamin D, which boosts the immune system and prevents some cancers.
“[Vitamin D] decreases the risk of prostate cancer and breast cancer,” said Bender.
Contrary to popular believe, however, prolonged exposure to the sun is not necessary to absorb your daily dose of D. Fifteen minutes of unprotected exposure to the sun provides you with all the vitamin D you need.
Still, it is unwise to spend too much time outside without sun block. You can also receive this vitamin from fish, milk and eggs, or even a daily supplement.
It is suggested that UV rays can help with other illnesses, as well.
“I have a 68-year-old man who tans here to control his psoriasis. Sometimes doctors even recommend it to treat women with seasonal depression,” said Bender. “It’s interesting to see that something can cause one type of problem and possibly remedy another.”
According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, UVB rays are more effective at treating the disease. UVB rays are minimized at tanning salons, so sunlight is the best choice.