About 1 in 5 people will someday develop skin cancer, the most common cancer in the United States. The most common skin cancers in older adults are basal cell and squamous cell carcinoma. Melanoma, the most fatal type of skin cancer, also occurs in older adults and is one of the most common cancers in adolescents and young adults—and the number of new melanoma cases increases each year.
Tips for avoiding sun-damaged skin
Most skin cancers are caused by ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun. These rays can damage your skin even on a cloudy day. The following tips for avoiding and blocking UV rays can help keep skin healthy, young looking, and cancer free.
- Limit sun exposure during the middle of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. This is the time when the sun is directly overhead and sunburn-causing UV rays are most damaging.
- Wear clothes that cover as much skin as possible. Wide-brimmed hats; socks and shoes that cover the entire foot; shirts with sleeves to the elbow or longer; and long shorts, skirts, or pants are good choices to help block sunlight. Tightly woven fabrics give the best protection. Some companies even sell sun-protective laundry additives or clothing specifically designed to block UV rays.
- Stay in the shade.
- Wear sunscreen on all skin not covered by clothing, even on cloudy days or when in the shade, because UV rays can cut through clouds and reflect off bright-colored surfaces, concrete, water, or snow. Many moisturizers, foundations, and lip balms contain sunscreen. All exposed areas—including the scalp, ears, and toes—should be protected.
- Wear sunglasses, especially wraparound designs that protect the eyes and surrounding skin. Select sunglasses that block 99%–100% of the sun’s UV rays; this information will be on the label. Melanoma can develop in the eyes and on the eyelids.
- Consider your location. UV rays are most intense at high altitudes and near the equator.
- Be prepared for less obvious exposures to the sun’s rays, such as while driving in a car or sitting near a window. During these activities, covering your skin will limit exposure.
- Never tan, indoors or outdoors. Indoor UV tanning is a known risk factor for melanoma.
- Examine moles and spots on the skin. Large, asymmetrical, or multicolored moles or spots should be checked by a doctor, as should any mole or spot that changes size, shape, color, or texture.
- Have regular skin exams by a dermatologist. Also, regular dilated eye exams by an optometrist or ophthalmologist can help check for damage inside the eyes.
- Learn your family history of skin cancer. A doctor can help identify any hereditary risk factors.
- Begin prevention early. Infants should be covered up and out of the sun. Children 6 months or older should have sunscreen applied before going outside. Teaching children good sun protection habits like wearing sunscreen and staying in the shade will help them live healthfully.
Tips for choosing sunscreen
When choosing sunscreen, you can start with the sun protection factor (SPF). Most experts recommend using sunscreen with an SPF of 30. SPF 30 sunscreens filter out or block 97% of UV rays. Next, you should make sure the sunscreen is broad spectrum, protecting against both types of UV rays: UVA and UVB.
It’s also good to look at the ingredients. Most sunscreens are oil based, but people with sensitive skin may prefer alcohol-based sunscreens. Some people are allergic to certain ingredients, so if you have a reaction to one sunscreen, try one with different active ingredients. You can test the new sunscreen by rubbing a small amount on the inside of your wrist and waiting 24 hours to see if your skin reacts to it.
Aside from choosing the right sunscreen, it is important to generously apply it on all skin not covered by clothing. Most people do not apply the amount of sunscreen needed to reach the SPF level of protection written on the label. The average adult should use 1 ounce of sunscreen—enough to fill a shot glass—each time sunscreen is applied. For best results, sunscreen should be applied to dry skin 30 minutes before going outside.
Sunscreen should be reapplied frequently, every 1–2 hours and after swimming or sweating. No sunscreen is truly waterproof, and sunscreens labeled “water-resistant” now tell how much time a user can expect to get the declared SPF level of protection while swimming or sweating.
The most effective sunscreen is the one you and your family will use, so find what works best for you and start using it daily, along with other skin-healthy steps, to prevent skin damage.
For more information, ask your physician, visit www.mdanderson.org, or call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789.
OncoLog, April 2016, Volume 61, Issue 4