July is UV (Ultraviolet) Safety Awareness Month. Ultraviolet radiation comes from the sun, as well as artificial sources such as tanning beds, black light lamps, broken mercury-vapor lamps, plasma torches and welding arcs.
UV rays are a form of ionizing radiation that can damage the DNA in the cells in your body, which in turn may lead to cancer. Since UV rays do not have enough energy to penetrate deep into the body, their main effect is on the skin, which is why they can cause skin cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, most skin cancers are a direct result of exposure to the UV rays in sunlight. Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States and more and more skin cancers are diagnosed each year, totaling more than all other types of cancers combined.
Understanding the Different Types of Skin Cancer
Basal cell cancers and squamous cell cancers are the two most common types of skin cancer. They tend to be found on sun-exposed parts of the body, like the face, arms and scalp. Their risk of occurrence is typically related to a person’s lifetime exposure to the sun, for instance:
- Spending time in the sun for recreation (including going to the beach)
- Spending an excessive amount of time in the sun in a swimsuit
- Living in an area with a high amount of sun exposure
- Living in an area of high altitude or living close to the equator (both increase the intensity of the UV rays)
- A history of serious blistering sunburns (with more sunburns linked to a higher risk for skin cancer)
- Having signs of sun damage to the skin
Melanoma is a more serious but less common type of skin cancer. It is related to sun exposure, although perhaps not as strongly. These types of cancers most commonly occur on the chest and back in males and on the legs in females. The neck and face are common sites for both men and women to have melanoma. If caught early, melanoma, like basal and squamous cell cancers, can be cured with treatment. If left untreated, melanoma is more likely to spread and can be fatal.
Additionally, skin cancer has been linked to exposure to artificial sources of UV rays, such as tanning beds/booths and sun lamps. People may think that tanning beds are safe, but there has been plenty of research showing that artificial UV rays can cause skin cancer, as well.
Health Problems Associated with UV Rays
UV rays can cause health problems such as skin rashes or an allergic reaction. Additionally, exposure to UV rays can cause premature aging of the skin from sun damage including wrinkles, liver spots, actinic keratosis (rough skin patches that can be precancerous) and solar elastosis (thickened, dry, wrinkled skin caused by sun exposure).
UV radiation can also cause burns of the cornea (the front of the eye) which can lead to cataracts (clouding of the lens of the eye) and pterygium (tissue growth on the surface of the eye), both of which can cause visual impairment. Medications can make you more sensitive to UV radiation, like certain antibiotics, which increases your risk for a sunburn.
How to Protect Yourself from UV Rays
Do not despair! The answer is NOT to never go outside. It is important to be outside and stay active for your overall physical and mental health. There are several ways you can protect yourself from UV rays. Here are 3 simple tips to help you avoid exposure to UV radiation:
- Stay in the shade. Staying in the shade, especially during peak sun hours, is the best and easiest way to protect yourself from sun exposure. If your shadow is shorter than you, that means the UV rays are high in intensity so you should protect your skin. This doesn’t just include days at the beach or the lake where you are hopefully sitting under an umbrella, but it also includes early spring days. Even if it isn’t hot outside, the UV index is high. For example, while outside on a bright snowy day, the UV rays can reflect off the snow and cause UV radiation exposure. Another example is when you are driving in your car or sitting by your office window, you are still exposed to UV rays. It is possible that tinted windows will help block more UV rays but it depends on the type of tinting on the car.
- Protect your skin with clothing. The more skin that is covered, the more it is protected (e.g. long sleeves and long pants protect better than shorts or t-shirts). Tightly woven fabrics and darker colors offer better protection than loosely woven fabrics or light-colored clothing. Some clothes are manufactured with special UV ray protection and their label will have a UV protection factor (UPF) listed on it. The higher the number (anywhere from 15 to 50+), the higher the UV ray protection. There are also products on the market that are used just like laundry detergents in the washing machine and can increase the UPF value of clothes you already own. You should also wear sunglasses that block UV rays to protect your eyes and the delicate skin around them. However, keep in mind that darker glasses do not necessarily mean better UV protection because the protection comes from a chemical applied to or in the lenses. Lastly, it is wise to wear a hat with a 2 to 3-inch brim all around to protect your head, face, nose, ears and neck.
- Wear sunscreen. It is important to wear sunscreen when you are out in the sun, but it should not be considered the first line of defense. Sunscreen will protect your skin from sun exposure, but it is only a filter and does not block all UV rays. Sunscreen should not be used as a way to prolong your time in the sun but rather it should be one part of your skin cancer protection plan, especially if staying in the shade and wearing protective clothing isn’t available as your first option.
Be sure to read your sunscreen labels. Sunscreens should have a broad spectrum of UV ray protection (including UVA and UVB rays) and it is recommended that the sun protection factor (SPF) value is 30 or higher. Sunscreen should be re-applied every 2 hours and it should be applied more often if you are swimming or sweating. Sunscreens can no longer be labeled “waterproof” or “sweatproof” because it is misleading. Sunscreens that claim to be “water resistant” must state on the label whether they protect the skin for 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or sweating.
By following these simple recommendations, you can protect yourself from sun exposure and decrease your risk of skin cancer. It is also important to regularly check and monitor moles or skin lesions that you already have. If you notice that a skin lesion is changing, getting darker, raised or has irregular edges, you should show it to your doctor or dermatologist, as it might need a biopsy to rule out skin cancer.
Early detection is the key to treatment for a cure, so during the month of July get your skin surveillance checked by your physician or dermatologist and educate yourself about how to stay safe in the sun.
Free Skin Cancer Screenings
The Cape Atlantic Coalition for Health is offering FREE Skin Cancer Screenings in July and August in Atlantic and Cape May Counties in New Jersey. No Registration is required!
- Saturday July 20th in Cape May at the Cape May Convention Hall 9:30am-12:30pm
- Saturday July 20th in Longport at the South 35th Gazebo 11am-2pm
- Sunday July 28th in Sea Isle City at the JFK Promenade 11am-2pm
- Sunday August 25th in Atlantic City at McClinton Park on New Hampshire Ave. 11am-2pm
Authored by Desiree D’Angelo, DO. Dr. Desiree D’Angelo is a board certified, general and breast surgeon, located in Egg Harbor Township and Cape May Court House, NJ. Dr. D’Angelo specializes in the treatment of breast cancer, as well as skin cancer and melanoma.