A dermatologist explains how the sun causes skin cancer, and offers tips for cancer prevention in the summer sun.
Preventing skin cancer isn’t just about putting sunscreen on – it’s about knowing how to recognize the signs and symptoms of skin cancer.
“It’s estimated that we accumulate more than 50% of sun damage before the age of 18,” says dermatologist Catherine Hui. “Sun damage not only causes skin dryness, wrinkles, and age spots, it also leads to skin cancer.”
No matter how old you are, it’s not too late to protect yourself! Sunburns and suntans damage your skin, and repeated skin damage increases the risk of skin cancer. The sun causes skin cancer when ultraviolet (UV) rays penetrate your skin and harm your cells’ DNA.
Make sure you’re using a lot of sunscreen that fights both UVA and UVB rays. Badger organic face and body sunscreen is a bestseller on Amazon.
How the Sun Causes Skin Cancer – and How to Prevent It
Fair skinned people are at higher risk for skin cancer
“Fair skinned individuals are more at risk for skin cancer,” says Dr Hui. “They also tend to have many non-cancerous skin spots or lesions on their body. So, distinguishing between cancer and benign skin lesions may not be easy. Sometimes a diagnosis can only be made by biopsy.”
People with freckles, red hair, and blue or green eyes fall into the “fair skinned” category. And, people with a family history of skin cancer are at a higher risk for skin cancer from the sun. If you fall into this category – or you’re concerned about a mole or skin spot – talk to your doctor or a dermatologist.
How do you know if you have skin cancer?
There are three main types of skin cancer: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and malignant melanoma. Basal cell carcinoma is the most common form of skin cancer in Canada; it’s also the least dangerous and rarely fatal. Malignant melanoma is the least common, representing about 5% of skin cancer. Melanoma has one of the highest cure rates of all types of skin cancers (a 90% cure rate if found at an early stage).
The key to spotting and preventing skin cancer is to look for changes in moles, coloured spots, or freckles. Dermatologists recommend checking your skin once a month. Look for moles, freckles, or spots that are asymmetrical or lopsided, ragged or irregular, bleeding, itchy, tender, or growing in size.
How to prevent summer skin cancer
“The best way to prevent skin cancer in the summer is to avoid direct prolonged sun exposure,” says Dr Hui. “Sunscreen offers one of the best protections from the sun – second to shade and clothing.”
She adds that tanning in the sun will damage your skin no matter how much sunscreen you use.
Always use a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Use a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB radiation, such as Loving Naturals Organic SPF 30 Sunscreen UVA/UVB. UVA rays penetrate deeply into the skin, while UVB rays mostly affects the skin’s outer layer. Both cause skin damage, and possibly skin cancer. If your sunscreen doesn’t specify “broad spectrum,” it may only protect against UVB.
Make sure you apply enough sunscreen
“Most people don’t apply enough sunscreen,” says Dr Hui. “A typical bottle should only last for 4-5 applications, if you’re applying it to your whole body.” She adds that covering up with hats and clothing offers better protection than sunscreen. If you spend a lot of time outside, consider investing in clothing with a built-in UVA filter.
Avoid sunscreen with vitamin A or retinols, because they increase sun sensitivity. If you have skin allergies, avoid sunscreen that contains PABA. Look for sunscreen with titanium dioxide as the major ingredient, because it’s likely chemical free. The less chemicals you put on your skin, the healthier your skin will be.
“Many organic sunscreens contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (which are good things),” says Dr Hui. “They aren’t more effective than non-organic sunscreens, but may be less likely to cause skin irritation.”
It has been reported that some chemicals in sunscreen are toxic, and promote skin cancer. However, no long-term research study has been conducted to determine the effects of chronic exposure to chemicals in sunscreen. Since the link between skin cancer and sun exposure is proven, doctors recommend using sunscreen (as opposed to not using sunscreen because of the potential risk of chemicals).
What is the best treatment for sunburn?
Certain medications may increase sensitivity to the sun, making you more likely to burn. If you take prescription medications, ask your doctor if they make you more sun-sensitive. Also, skin care products that contain retinols and alpha hydroxyl acids (AHA) increase sensitivity to the sun’s rays, which may contribute to skin cancer. Dr Hui recommends using these products at night only.
If the sun’s rays burn you to a crisp, apply cool compresses and keep well-hydrated with water. Dr Hui recommends anti-inflammatories (ibuprofen, for example) and weak steroid creams to decrease redness and swelling. Aloe vera is also helpful for sunburn, such as Fruit Of The Earth Aloe Vera Gel.
Summer Cancer Prevention – Quick Tips
- Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before going outside
- Use about 2 tablespoons per application for an average size person, and reapply every two hours
- Avoid prolonged exposure between 10 am and 4 pm, when the sun is strongest.
- Wear your sunglasses! Cumulative sun damages on the cornea can cause premature cataracts later in life. Sunglasses should have UV 400 protection label.
- Use lip balm that contains SPF, to prevent skin cancer from developing on your lips
- Be aware that makeup that contains SPF is not as effective as sunscreen, so don’t skip the sunscreen because you’re wearing makeup
If you have a sunburn, check out this Easy Oatmeal Bath Recipe. It’s also a natural eczema treatment!
If you have any thoughts on how the sun causes skin cancer – or these summer cancer prevention tips – please comment below.
I'm glad you're here! My name is Laurie Pawlik-Kienlen; my husband Bruce and I live in Vancouver, BC with our critters. We can't have kids, and are learning to accept whatever life brings - both good and bad. I have an MSW (Master of Social Work) from UBC, and degrees in Education and Psychology. I hope you say hello below - I can't give relationship advice, but writing can bring you clarity and insight.