While sunscreen should be used year-round, in spring and summer it becomes especially important. Skin cancers are the most common cancers in the U.S., with more than two million people diagnosed annually.
Researchers believe most skin cancers develop because UV radiation — from natural sunlight or tanning beds — causes mutations in skin cells, which turn cancerous over time.
Who is most at risk? Skin pigmentation plays a large role. Light complexions have less melanin, while dark complexions have more. Think of melanin as a built-in sunblock — the more you have, the less UV radiation can get through to the sensitive layers of the skin and the more protected you are. However, anyone can develop skin cancer, regardless of skin color. People with previous personal or family history of skin cancer, or who are taking chemotherapy or certain immunosuppressive medications have a higher risk.
Is skin cancer really that serious? All cancers are serious, because any type can progress and ultimately hurt or kill a patient. Luckily, the majority of skin cancers — mostly those known as basal cell or squamous cell carcinomas — are easily treated with local therapies including cryotherapy (freezing) or surgery. Melanomas are a different story. More than three-fourths of skin cancer deaths come from this very serious type of cancer. Most melanomas are pigmented (look dark) and develop from moles. If a melanoma invades more than a quarter-inch into the skin, there is a good chance it has spread to other areas of the body. While researchers have made great strides in developing melanoma chemotherapy in recent years, it still cannot cure most patients with melanoma that has spread. Catching melanoma early can literally save your life.
Is it safer to use a tanning bed? No way! Tanning lamps can put out 10 times as much UV radiation as natural sunlight. Tanning bed users are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never used beds. Research has shown that melanoma incidence has increased six-fold in young adults over the last 40 years. Many experts believe this is partly due to the skyrocketing use of tanning beds. Tanning does give us natural endorphins and can improve appearance, but it is addictive and frequent use is dangerous.
Don't we need sun exposure for vitamin D? UV light converts cholesterol in the skin to vitamin D, which helps strengthen bones and can protect against various cancers and multiple sclerosis. A fair-skinned person in shorts and a tank top can get sufficient exposure for vitamin D in less than 10 minutes on a sunny day. Darker-skinned people may need up to an hour to get the same levels.
Wearing sunscreen reduces the skin's ability to create vitamin D; however, we can safely get it through many foods such as fish, liver, cheese and fortified cereals, and in multivitamins and supplements.
Dr. John D'Orazio is a pediatric hematologist/oncologist who specializes in skin cancer research.