We’re about halfway through the summer, and I’ll bet you’ve heard no end of warnings about sun exposure. Stay out of the sun for long periods of time. Avoid the sun during its peak hours. Wear lots of sunscreen when you go out. The litany goes on and on. The dangers of irresponsible sun exposure are real… but they are also misunderstood
It is true that repeated sunburns contribute to skin cancer, but not to the kind of skin cancer that you think. Sunburns can lead to the most common forms of skin cancer-basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas. These are superficial cancers, meaning that they don’t easily spread within your body. They are also easily treated when you catch them early.
The kind of cancer you think of when someone says skin cancer is melanoma. This is much more serious. Melanoma can spread throughout your body and be very deadly. But the link between sun exposure and melanoma is tenuous.
There is evidence that sunburn does increase the risk of melanoma. But there is also evidence that sun exposure without sunburn will actually lower your risks.
For example, in one study researchers found that people whose jobs force them to get regular sun exposure are less likely to develop melanoma than those who get no sun exposure as part of their jobs. (1)
In another study researchers discovered that people with melanoma had a greater chance of survival if they spent more time in the sun. (2)
As you can see, the connection between sun exposure and melanoma is more complicated than the simple “Sun is bad,” mantra that you hear from most dermatologists.
The two best ways to protect yourself from melanoma are to understand what responsible sun exposure means and to know how to recognize melanoma in its early stages–early treatment is key to survival.
Know the Skin You’re In
First, here are the keys to healthy sun exposure:
Do get some sunscreen-free sun exposure each week to bolster your vitamin D levels.
Do protect your skin from burning by covering up, finding shade, or using a safe sunscreen with zinc oxide as the active ingredient.
Don’t stay out in the sun for prolonged periods without taking measures to protect your skin.
Do take 1 gram of vitamin C before bed if you burn–it will help your body prevent long-lasting damage to your skin.
Do have a therapeutic lotion on hand in case of sunburn–my favorite is just straight aloe vera jelly.
Next, here are the ABCs of recognize a melanoma in its early stages
A. Asymmetrical Appearance: Take notice of moles that aren’t symmetrical in shape. This is a warning that something might be amiss.
B. Border Irregularity: Moles that have a rough or uneven border may be cancerous or in danger or becoming cancerous.
C. Color Variation: A healthy mole is usually uniform in color. Cancerous moles often have color variations within the mole, ranging from white to red to black to brown.
D. Diameter: Be concerned about any mole larger than a pencil eraser.
E. Elevation Change: Most healthy moles will not undergo any changes whereas a cancerous mole may change from a flat mole to one that is raised or it may grow in size.
If you have two or more of these ABCs in a single mole, it’s time to make an appointment with your dermatologist. It could save your life.
In Good Health,
Jay Brachfeld, M.D.