Beneath Sunny Skies, Deadly Cancer is on the Rise

A dermatologist’s advice on protecting your skin and saving your life

As sun-filled parks and beaches beckon, it’s easy to forget that the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays can be deadly. In fact, skin cancer in the U.S. is rising at a record pace.

According to Tina Venetos, MD, a board-certified dermatologist with Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, the relative youth of the patients is particularly disturbing.

“40 years ago, parents used to tell their kids to ‘go out and get some sun.’ Now they’re coming in as adults, concerned about potential cancers,” she says. “I’m also seeing younger and younger patients.”

Statistics back up Dr. Venetos’ observations. The Skin Cancer Foundation reports that between 1973 to 2004, melanoma incidence among men aged 15 to 39 increased from 4.7 to 7.7 cases per 100,000. In that same age group, the figures more than doubled among women, from 5.5 per to 13.9 cases per 100,000. Not surprisingly, the increasing rates correspond with reportedly more days spent at the beach and an increase in tanning bed use, especially among 16-18 year olds.


Making Sense of Sunscreen

With the protection of a broad-spectrum sunscreen, sunshine can be enjoyed year round. But with so many types available—not to mention Internet reports that certain sunscreen chemicals are harmful—it’s hard to know what to choose.

“There has been a lot of hype about sunscreen, as well as confusion about whether a person needs sun exposure to get Vitamin D,” says Dr. Venetos. “I believe the benefits of sunscreen far outweigh any risks. And irritating chemicals like PABAs [para-aminobenzoic] have been removed from most products.”

Dr. Venetos adds that the need for Vitamin D is no reason to dismiss these products or bask in the sun unprotected: “The way to get the right amount of Vitamin D is by taking a supplement—not by soaking up sun.”

Dr. Venetos explains the best way to use sunscreen:

  • Understand the Skin Protection Factor (SPF). The SPF listed on the front of most sunscreens is based on how long it would take an unprotected person to burn or experience redness. Consider this example: 10 minutes until redness/burning x 30 SPF = 300 minutes, or 5 hours of protection.

  • Always Re-apply. Re-apply if you’ve perspired or if you are swimming, even if the product claims to be waterproof.

  • Use the right quantity. Although it depends on your size, generally use a large pea-size amount for the face and a teaspoon for body parts like arms or legs. Apply liberally, but not too thick.


Additional Ways to Reduce Skin Cancer Risk

  • Schedule an annual exam with a dermatologist—it’s just as important as an annual physical or OB Gyn exam.

  • Avoid sun exposure during the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest.

  • Wear a hat and sunglasses and try to sit under umbrellas.

  • Take special precautions with children and teenagers under the age of 18. Most sun damage occurs before age 18.

  • Avoid tanning beds, which make you two times more likely to develop skin cancer than those who don’t use them.

Still want some color? Consider sunless tanning products, but use them carefully and remember that they don’t contain sunscreen.

“I recommend sunless tanning if you want some color. It’s safe, and you don’t have to spend a lot,” says Dr. Venetos. “Just be careful not to inhale the sprays. The chemical dihydroxyacetone (DHA) that makes these products work is FDA-approved, but the effects of inhaling it are still unknown. As with all skin care, follow your common sense.”


The Three Types of Skin Cancer

Without protection, outdoor lovers or those who work outdoors will risk three different types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma.  The most common, but 99.9 percent treatable in its early stages. Depending on its size and depth, it can be locally destructive but it does not spread.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma.  The second most common, it’s a slow-growing cancer in the upper or outermost layers of skin which can spread to other areas of the body.

  • Malignant melanoma.  The most dangerous form of skin cancer, it can cause serious illness or even death if it spreads to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body.

Learn more