Fun in the sun could mean higher risk of melanoma

The lake is calling your name. You grab your bathing suit and your flip-flops and you head down to the sun-drenched water to escape the suffocating Texas heat. But you forgot one important ingredient for safe summer fun — sunscreen.

Thousands of people every year are diagnosed with melanoma — a type of deadly skin cancer. The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 76,000 new melanoma cases will be diagnosed in 2013. Rates have been rising in the past 30 years, and it seems to be affecting two groups of people more than others.

“If you look at the statistics on melanoma, we have seen an increase in two age groups: older males and young females that have fair skin,” said Ronald E. Grimwood, Jr., MD, a dermatologist on the medical staff at Scott & White Medical Center – Temple. “And many of those young women who have fair skin have gone to tanning parlors.”

Like the sun’s rays, tanning beds contain harmful UVA rays that can cause significant damage to the skin and may even alter the DNA of the affected skin cells.

Although exposing your skin to harmful UVA rays in a tanning bed is one of the most significant risk factors for developing skin cancer, there are other risks that you should be aware of, especially if you’ve already been diagnosed with or treated for melanoma.

“If patients [who have had melanoma] continue to expose themselves to the factors that caused their initial skin cancer, then they have a higher chance of developing a second skin cancer,” Dr. Grimwood said.

Skin Type

One of the biggest risk factors for developing skin cancer is skin type, according to the dermatologist.

“If you’re very fair—a red head or a blonde—then you will sunburn very easily,” he said. “And if you’ve had a significant number of sunburns, then your risk of skin cancer is increased.”

Sun Exposure

From 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. is when the sun gives off the most intense ultraviolet rays. Although UVA and UVB only make up a portion of the sun’s rays, they are the main cause of the damaging effects of the sun on skin, according to the American Cancer Society.

“That’s always a good time to avoid sun exposure and going outside,” Dr. Grimwood said.

Age

While most cases are in older people who have had years of accumulated sun exposure, melanoma is one of the most common cancers in young people, especially young women. And if melanoma runs in your family, you may have a chance of developing the skin cancer earlier in life.

Gender

While young women are one of the most significant groups of people at risk for developing melanoma, there are actually more men developing this type of skin cancer in the US. They tend to be over the age of 40, and have had prolonged exposure to the sun.

With so many risk factors beaming down on us all the time, it is important to protect you and your children from harmful UV rays, whether they come from the sun or a tanning bed.

Here are some other ways to reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

  • Limit Sun Exposure

    Stay out of the sun during hours when the sun’s rays are at their most dangerous.

  • Wear a Hat

    A broad-brimmed hat with at least a 4-inch brim offers significant protection from the sun. They may not be the most fashionable accessory, Dr. Grimwood said, but they will help keep the upper body and the face covered.

  • Use Sunscreen

    Sunscreen isn’t just for the beach or the pool. Everyone, especially those with significant risk factors, should be wearing sunscreen every time they leave the house. Make it part of your routine to put on sunscreen before you go outside. The ACS suggests using a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher.

  • Wear Sunglasses

    Good eye protection is important, and sunglasses can help keep harmful rays away from sensitive eyes and the sensitive skin around them. Choose sunglasses that have UV screens.

If you follow the doctor’s advice, you will significantly reduce your risk of developing skin cancer.

“Melanoma is very serious. It’s the most serious out of the three basic types of skin cancer,” Dr. Grimwood said. “It’s the one that can get into the lymph nodes and into other organs. Therefore, it can metastasize and if it goes on too long, it can have a very high death rate.”

So, if you’re going to be enjoying some fun in the sun this summer, protect yourself and your children. And if you have a suspicious spot on your skin—particularly if it is not healing or is black in color—then get it checked out by a doctor.

Click here for more information about preventing skin cancer.

What are you doing to reduce your risk of sun exposure this summer? Share your tips below.

About the author

Jessa McClure
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Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.

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Fun in the sun could mean higher risk of melanoma