To fight cancer, shield yourself from the sun

February 8, 2013 | by Hiu Chung So

One in a series of articles about how to reduce the risk of cancer ...

The skin is the body's largest organ, but it's also one of the most neglected. Skin cancer is — by far — the most common cancer among Americans. According to the National Cancer Institute, there will be more than 2 million new cases of skin cancer in 2013. That includes approximately 76,000 new cases of its most deadly form, melanoma.

The tricks to effective sunscreen use include starting young, using enough and (re-)applying often (Photo Credit: George Doyle / Thinkstock ) Tips for effective sunscreen use include starting young, using enough and (re-)applying often. (Photo Credit: George Doyle / Thinkstock )

And the reason is as clear as day. Americans simply do not take enough precautions against the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays; many even deliberately compromise their skin health for a tan.

“Ultraviolet rays from the sun cause mutations which can lead to skin cancer,” said City of Hope dermatologist Jae Jung, M.D., Ph.D. “Every melanoma patient I have seen under the age of 40 has had a sun tanning history.”

The good news is that the risk of  skin cancer can be dramatically reduced, and all it takes is a little savvy and vigilance in protecting yourself from the sun, said Jung. She offers these tips:

Choose a powerful sunscreen. The American Cancer Society recommends using a broad-spectrum sunscreen, which protects against both UVA and UVB rays, with a skin protection factor (SPF) of at least 30. “Some evidence suggests higher SPF levels are better, and I personally use SPF 90 every day,” Jung said. She also notes that people with sensitive skin can opt for gentler sunscreens containing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Use a lot and use it often. “Reapplication and using enough is key to getting appropriate protection from sunscreens,” Jung said, noting that someone in the sun should apply sunscreen to exposed skin every one to two hours. Approximately two fingertips’ worth is needed to cover face, hands and neck, and an entire ounce is required to cover the whole body. Sunscreens labeled “water resistant” and “water proof” will maintain their protection in the water for 40 and 80 minutes, respectively, she added.

Cover up. Clothing and accessories can also protect skin from the sun. These include full-sleeve shirts, long-legged pants, wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses and cover-up wraps and sarongs. Although most clothing will protect the skin from UV rays, Jung said, those with a listed ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF, are ideal.

Take shade from 10 to 4. Between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. is when the UV rays are most intense, so people need to be extra cautious about their sun exposure — and extra attentive about their skin protection — during that time.

Start young. Jung advises parents to be extra mindful of their children’s sun exposure, too, because damage from UV rays can accumulate over a lifetime. “One study showed that sun-induced melanoma risk is determined by the amount of UV exposure you get before the age of 10.”

Jung also wants to remind people that there’s currently no amount or form of tanning that’s considered safe. She offers this cautionary tale from the melanoma patients she sees:

“They were all uniformly disgusted by their vanity [in their younger days]. Especially since the sun also ages your skin, women who did a lot of tanning wound up looking a decade or two older than those who didn’t,” Jung said.

First in the series: To fight cancer, exercise for the long haul

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