Skin cancer risk factors include:
If you are at higher risk of skin cancer, it is important to examine your skin regularly. See your family doctor or dermatologist each year. Any suspicious skin areas should be removed.
Regular use of sunscreens has been shown to reduce skin pre-cancers and some skin cancers. (Pre-cancers are abnormal, but not cancerous, areas of the skin. Since they have the potential to become cancer, they must be watched.)
Avoid sun exposure – especially during peak hours between 10 am to 4 pm, or when the ultraviolet index is greater than three. If you are outside during these times, seek shade, such as under trees and umbrellas. Avoiding the sun during peak hours reduces exposure to ultraviolet B light (UVB), which tans or burns. Be aware that having had sunburns in the past is a risk factor for skin cancer. Avoid tanning. A suntan is the skin’s response to damage from ultraviolet light.
Wear protective clothing – including broad brimmed hats, long sleeved shirts and sunglasses. Clothing with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 is considered adequate. T-shirts provide an SPF 8 when dry and 4 when wet. Tightly woven synthetic clothing works best.
A rough way of telling if your clothing is adequate is to hold it up to the light. If light passes through easily, it will not protect you. ‘Rash shirts’ or sun protective shirts are a great way to provide consistent and effective sun protection. They can be purchased at local outdoor equipment stores and over the Internet.
Wear sunscreens with an SPF of 30 – remember, they are a tool for prevention and so only part of the protection equation. Use them while protecting your skin in other ways.
When shopping for sunscreens, look for products with an SPF of at least 30. SPF 15 was once the standard. However, studies have shown that we tend to put on only 40 per cent of the sunscreen that we need. As a result, we reduce the effectiveness – a sunscreen with an SPF 15 acts like an SPF 6.
Look for sunscreens that have titanium or zinc along with good UVA blockers like Parsol™ 1789, Mexoral™ SX and LX and Tinosorb™.
Avoid suntan booths - your skin does not know the difference between natural ultraviolet light and artificial light from suntan booths. The light of a booth can cause pre-cancers and cancers of the skin. Tanning before holidays is not recommended. It just adds to the skin’s exposure to ultraviolet light. As well, the protection from tanning in a sun booth is less than complete; you still need to use sunscreen.
Skin produces vitamin D when exposed to sunlight. Inadequate levels of this vitamin are associated with weak bones (osteoporosis), higher risk of some cancers and with multiple sclerosis. Vitamin D is essential for keeping bones strong.
Those most likely to lack vitamin D include the elderly and people with darker skin. Elderly individuals may not get outside as often and their skin is not as efficient at making vitamin D. In those with a darker complexion, the skin is more efficient at filtering the sun’s rays. More sun is needed to make vitamin D, often 10 to 15 times what a fair skinned person requires.
The skin is an excellent producer of vitamin D. However, you may not get enough from sun exposure alone.
A study was done in Hawaii of those who used sunscreen and those who did not. It showed that chronic sun exposure did not universally provide adequate levels of vitamin D.
In other words, exposing yourself to potentially harmful UV rays does not guarantee adequate vitamin D levels. Instead, use dietary sources and vitamin D supplements. Dietary sources include fortified dairy products, eggs, cod liver oil, fish (salmon, tuna, and sardines), and fortified soy. A daily supplement should contain 800 to 1000 units of vitamin D. To get enough vitamin D year round, supplements are needed.
To protect your skin, avoid the sun during peak hours. If you are outside at that time, seek shade and wear sun protective clothing and sunscreen.
If you think you may be at risk for skin cancer, check your skin for common signs of skin cancer. (For more details, check Sun Safety Resources under the Sun Awareness Program sidebar at www.dermatology.ca.) Remember to see your doctor regularly.