As the warmer spring and summer months approach, it's tempting to make plans for long weekends at the beach or days lying on a picnic blanket in the park. Especially since sunlight has proven benefits on mood, says Dr. Kishwer Nehal, a director of dermatologic surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City.
However, all those hours in the bright sun can add up to a large increase in the risk of skin cancer. Are those shiny, happy days really worth the health risks? It's a question even some doctors can't agree on.
Last Thursday, I attended a skin cancer lecture offered by the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. While there, I spoke with Dr. Nehal about some of the statistics regarding skin cancer. The general rule? She doesn't recommend hiding from the sun like a vampire, but avoid spending long stretches of time outside without proper sun protection measures. Here are some facts that may help us prepare wisely for the bright summer months ahead.
Every year, over one million new cases of skin cancer get diagnosed in the U.S. In other words, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer during their lives.
Of the three types of skin cancer—basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma—melanoma is by far the deadliest. The surprising statistic? Melanoma most often develops during middle age, but it is the #1 cause of all cancers in women between the ages of 25-30. In women in their thirties, it is second only to breast cancer. And while carcinomas are not usually fatal, untreated carcinomas can cause severe local disfiguration if left untreated for too long.
The good news about skin cancer is that most cases are entirely preventable. Most people, however, do not use enough sunscreen, says Dr. Nehal. Per application, use a full oz. of sunscreen on exposed areas—roughly the equivalent of a shot glass. If you plan on being in the sun for a long period, remember to reapply that same amount every two hours or after taking a dip in water.
Wearing dark, tightly woven clothing helps as well. But if you can't bear to give up your light cottons, try treating your clothing in the wash with a product like Rit Sun Guard. It contains a compound called Tinasorb, which adds SPF to natural-fiber fabrics.
As a last word of caution, check your skin at least once a month and note any changes to discuss with your dermatologist. If you have a large number of moles, ask your doctor about full-body photography, which will help you keep track of any changes that may occur. No one knows your skin as well as you do and most patients find their own skin cancers.
If you're still not convinced there are any dangers to sun exposure, remember that Bob Marley died of metastatic melanoma at the age of 36.