By Dr. Elizabeth Rostan

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month. As far as awareness, I can make it very simple – there is an epidemic of skin cancer and coming from one source – too much sun exposure. As we begin another summer season, it is a good time to reflect on the dangers of overexposure to the sun and tanning beds.

What is a skin cancer?

A skin cancer is a cancer of one of the cells of the skin meaning that these cells starts growing abnormally and without check thus forming tumors of varying sizes. Skin cancer is divided into 2 groups – melanoma and non-melanoma cancer. Non-melanoma is the most common and includes basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Basal cell is more common and typically less serious but still can grow big and occur in cosmetically important areas such as nose, eye, ear, cheek and chest. Squamous cell cancer is less common but is more likely to metastasize or get into lymph nodes and other organs. Melanoma is a cancer of the melanocyte cell in the skin and is the most serious and deadliest form of skin cancer. Although melanoma accounts for less than 5% of all skin cancer, it is to blame for about 75% of all skin cancer deaths. The American Cancer Society estimates that one American dies each hour from melanoma.

A Growing Epidemic:

Skin cancer is the most common cancer with over 3.5 million cases each year in the United States. One in five Americans can expect to develop skin cancer in a lifetime. By the age 65, 40-50% of people can expect to have at least one skin cancer. The numbers are staggering but the sobering data lies in skin cancer in young individuals under the age of 40. Basal cell skin cancer incidence in women under the age of 40 has more than doubled in the last 30 years while the incidence of SCC increased 700% in this age group. Confirming what many dermatologists have already been seeing in their practices, a recent Mayo Clinic study showed an alarming increase in skin cancer – both melanoma and non-melanoma – in patients aged 18-39 years old. During the study period of 1970 – 2009, there was an eightfold increase in melanoma in women and a fourfold increase among men of this age group.

What is the cause of all this skin cancer?

Too much time in the sun. Ultraviolet radiation (UVR) from the sun or tanning beds is a well documented carcinogen. Over 90% of non-melanoma skin cancers are caused by too much sun exposure. Protection from the damaging effects of UVR is essential to maintain healthy, cancer-free skin as we age. There is no such thing as a safe amount of sun exposure.

There is no safe tanning bed:

Just one exposure to a tanning bed can increase an individual’s chance of skin cancer. People who have used a tanning bed once or more are 74% more likely to develop melanoma. The risk increases with increased exposure. Those who have used tanning beds for 10 years have double the risk of melanoma. Tanning bed use also increases the risk of basal cell cancer.

Gentlemen, don’t skip your skin check:

The majority of persons diagnosed with melanoma are men over the age of 50. One in 39 Caucasian men will develop melanoma in their lifetimes. National Cancer Institute data show that Caucasian men over age 65 have had an 8.8 percent annual increase in melanoma incidence since 2003 – the highest annual increase of any gender or age group.

Keep your skin healthy AND wrinkle free:

90% of skin aging comes from sun exposure. I am often asked “what should I be doing for my skin?”. The answer can be simple – keep your skin protected from the sun every day and start at an early age. Daily sunscreen use is recommended and is a simple way to prevent sun damage and aging. Use of sun protective clothing and hats and avoiding sun during the peak hours of the day is also very helpful. If you see tan lines, you are getting sun damage.

What about Vitamin D?

Incidental sun exposure is enough to reach the skin’s maximum Vitamin D production. A study of 93 frequent surfers in Hawaii (average age 24 years, average weekly sun exposure 29 hours) showed that almost all had Vitamin D levels below normal. Of this group, 40% never used sunscreen. These surfers could not reach “normal” level of Vitamin D with an average of 29 unprotected hours in the sun per week thus supporting a recommendation to use diet and supplements to maintain a healthy level of Vitamin D.

Enjoy the sun safely!

Yes, the safest way to protect your skin is to not get in the sun but that is no fun and not realistic. There are great sunscreens as well as amazing sun protective shirts and hats that provide consistent, easy to use sun protection. So enjoy your time outside in our beautiful neighborhood and beyond – but keep your skin protected while you do so!