5 Things You Need to Know About Skin Cancer

Skin cancer rates are on the climb, and the sun is the major culprit. Now that summer is here, it's time to get sun savvy to protect your body's largest organ.

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You hear the same advice every summer: Slather on sunscreen and limit your time in the sun. Those rules still apply, but not everyone is getting the message, and rates of melanoma are on the rise.

Although melanoma isn’t the most common cancer — it’s third behind basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma — it is the most deadly. In 2021, rates of melanoma are expected to rise by 5.8%, and women under 50 are being hit harder than men of the same age. Two reasons explain the rise. “The overall increase in skin cancers has to do with cumulative sun exposure combined with lack of adequate sun block or protection from UVA/UVB rays,” says Ava Shamban, MD, board-certified dermatologist in Los Angeles and founder of Ava MD Dermatology, SkinFive Medical Spas and The Box by Dr. Ava. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer by the age of 70.

This summer, get smarter about your sun exposure. Here are five often-forgotten facts you need to know to protect your skin.

1. You Should Wear Sunscreen 365 Days a Year

You may not think about wearing sunscreen when it’s cloudy or rainy or even during winter. Yet you should. “The most harmful ultraviolet rays are present every day,” Shamban says. “They don’t retreat in winter and can filter through dark cloud coverage, which is why any uncovered areas of the body at any time of the year are exposed and vulnerable to the damage of the sun’s UV rays.”

Easy solution? Make sunscreen application as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth. Choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB with an SPF of at least 30 and slather it on when you get out of the shower in the morning as you would lotion.

Consider using sunscreen anywhere above or below the towel, including your legs, arms, shoulders, décolletage, neck, face, ears and hands. The American Cancer Society also suggests a lip balm with sunscreen. You might even add a hand cream, moisturizer or makeup with sun protection to your daily routine. These won’t replace sunscreen but will offer added support for vulnerable areas that are never covered in your reapplication plan, Shamban says.

2. You Should Go Through a Bottle of Sunscreen Every Few Months

How quickly you go through that sunscreen depends not only on how big the bottle is but also how well you’re applying it. In general, though, aim to go through at least one bottle during the summer, more if you’re sharing that bottle with others. If your bottle lingers, it’s a sign you’re probably not using enough.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends applying an ounce of sunscreen to your face and body. That’s about the size of a shot glass; for easy reference, keep a shot glass in your bathroom to help you measure it, Shamban says. Your face alone should get a nickel-sized amount, Haimovic says, adding that you should then reapply every two hours. Just watch those expiration dates, as sunscreen breaks down over time. “I’ve seen people who have gotten burns because they used expired sunscreen,” she adds. Once a year, go through all your sunscreen and toss any that have expired.

3. Skin Cancer Around the Eyes Is More Common Than You Think

Although any exposed skin may be prone to developing skin cancer, the skin around your eyes is particularly vulnerable because it’s thin and delicate, Shamban says. Roughly 5 to 10% of all basal cell carcinomas occur on the eyelids. While you should always wear sun-protective eyewear when outdoors, choose a darker, polarized lens rated for ultraviolet protection; most sunglasses don’t have enough UV protection alone. That’s where wearing a wide-brimmed hat with a minimum of three inches and finding shade or using an umbrella can help.

Sunscreen is crucial, but if it bothers your eyes, use a mineral version (containing zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide) for the eye area or try a fragrance-free sunscreen for sensitive skin. Alternatively, use a protective powder with an SPF rating for your eyelids; try a stick formula or one with a “doe foot” applicator, which allows more precise application versus your finger, Shamban says. A broad-based sun-protection eye cream will also do the trick.

4. Windows Are a Significant Source of UV Exposure

Being by windows can give your mental health a boost, but know that those windows, whether in your home, office or car, will expose you to harmful UV rays. There are two types of rays — UVA and UVB — and each one affects the skin differently. UVB rays are the classic burning rays, the most common cause of sunburns and the type most associated with skin cancer, says Adele Haimovic, MD, dermatologist in New York and spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation.

Meanwhile, although UVA rays can cause sun damage and also lead to skin cancer, they’re associated more with aging, and it’s these rays that penetrate more through windows. “Most glass does not protect against UVA exposure,” Shamban says, adding that while some of the UVB rays get through, all of the UVA rays do. That’s one reason year-round sunscreen is so critical on exposed parts of your body.

To further protect yourself, purchase UV protection shields for car windows. Clothing can even add another layer of protection. Bonus? Look for detergents that wash sun protection into your clothing.

5. Outdoor Athletic Training Can Make You More Vulnerable to Skin Cancer

While this may be a no-brainer, it’s worth repeating: If you’re logging the miles outside, you’re at an increased risk of skin cancer.

“Marathoners wear very little clothing and are outdoors for extended periods of time,” Shamban says. To protect yourself, always apply sunscreen when you go out, reapplying as much as you can since you’re sweating so much off. If sunscreen is always dripping into your eyes and stinging them, switch to one with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, Haimovic says. You can also buy athletic apparel with ultraviolet protection factor. Wear sunglasses and, if you can tolerate it, a visor or hat. And if possible, plan your workouts so you’re not outside when the rays are at their strongest, generally between 10 am and 4 pm.

Bottom line? “Even if the sun doesn’t shine, it’s not a free pass from sun protection,” Shamban says. “Ultraviolet rays don’t take a vacation, and skin cancer knows no season.”

Can You “Eat” Your Sunscreen?

Not literally, but certain foods may act as an internal sunscreen, so to speak. “Any fruit or vegetable high in antioxidants can help support your ability to maximize the cellular functions that turn up your internal DNA protective systems,” Shamban says.

Focus on eating dark leafy greens like kale and spinach, which are high in the antioxidants lutein and zeaxanthin, and various berries, which have vitamins A, C, E and other antioxidants to bolster their sun-protective efforts. A recent study from the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology even found that grapes might aid your skin’s sun defenses.

You might also consider taking an oral supplement with the natural botanical extract Polypodium leucotomos, Shamban says. According to a study in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology, it may protect against the damaging effects of UV radiation. Just keep in mind a warning that the FDA issued in 2018 about these supplements: “There’s no pill or capsule that can replace your sunscreen.”

Whether you load your diet with the foods mentioned above or pop a supplement, none of them replaces sunscreen. “While it’s always good to boost the function and capacity of your body’s own defense system, it’s not enough alone to fight off cancer and damage or aging from ultraviolet rays,” Shamban says. Sunscreen still remains your best defense.

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