Whenever you’re outdoors, your skin is enduring a silent assault from the sun.
Fortunately, your skin is among the most resilient of your body’s organs — the body’s largest organ, in fact — and can endure the solar abuse. At least, up to a point.
On the surface, prolonged exposure to the sun can cause blemishes, lines and wrinkles. But it also does lasting damage to your skin at a cellular level — and that damage raises your risk for skin cancer.
What is skin cancer?
Cancer, generally, is the uncontrolled growth of cells in the body. Inside the body, these growths are often identified as tumors. On the skin, these can appear as lesions, or sores.
Skin cancer is the most common cancer worldwide. More than 9,500 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each day in the United States. More cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. each year than all other cancers combined.
Skin cancer is diagnosed with a physical exam, during which a provider will check the surface of your skin for lesions or other signs. Biopsies may be taken if necessary, removing a small amount of tissue for examination at a lab.
There are several ways to treat skin cancer, from freezing the cells to surgery. As with other cancers, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments may be necessary.
Protecting your skin from the sun
Skin cancer is so widespread in part because we do so little to prevent it: a 2014 study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) found that only about 14% of men and 30% of women regularly use sunscreen when they’re going to be outside for an hour or longer.
Protecting yourself from the sun is vital. The Skin Cancer Foundation estimates that having five or more sunburns can double your risk for melanoma — one of the most aggressive forms of skin cancer.
Here are some ways to keep yourself safe from the sun:
- Buy wisely. Some sunblock is better than none, but not all sunblock is the same. Look for broad-spectrum sun block with at least an SPF of 30.
- Cover up. Wear wide-brimmed hats and light-colored, long-sleeved shirts when you’re going to be outdoors for a long period. There are many products available now that offer further UV protection.
- Stay in. Avoid going outdoors at times when the sun is at its peak — like midday — and check weather apps to see when UV exposure is lower in the day.
- Stay ready. You may find it useful to keep some sunblock stored away in your car, your desk at work — even drop a small bottle in your purse so you’re always prepared to apply it. And if you have a few cans or bottles stashed somewhere, make sure you check the dates — it does expire.
Along with the above tips, it’s also important to regularly check your own skin for signs of skin cancer. Ask your medical provider if they offer skin cancer screenings and be sure to follow up on any signs of concern.
To make an appointment with a dermatologist, please use Tanner's Find a Provider tool.