The two most common kinds of skin cancer are
basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell
carcinoma. (Carcinoma is cancer that begins in
the cells that cover or line an organ.) Basal
cell carcinoma accounts for more than 90 percent
of all skin cancers in the United States. It is
a slow-growing cancer that seldom spreads to
other parts of the body.
Another type of
cancer that occurs in the skin is melanoma,
which begins in the melanocytes. Although anyone
can get skin cancer, the risk is greatest for
people who have fair skin that freckles
easily--often those with red or blond hair and
blue or light-colored eyes.
Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun is
the main cause of skin cancer. Artificial
sources of UV radiation, such as sunlamps and
tanning booths, can also cause skin cancer.
The risk of developing skin cancer is
affected by where a person lives. People who
live in areas that get high levels of UV
radiation from the sun are more likely to get
skin cancer. In the United States, for example,
skin cancer is more common in Texas than it is
in Minnesota, where the sun is not as strong.
Worldwide, the highest rates of skin cancer are
found in South Africa and Australia, areas that
receive high amounts of UV radiation.
In addition, skin cancer is related to
lifetime exposure to UV radiation. Most skin
cancers appear after age 50, but the sun's
damaging effects begin at an early age.
Therefore, protection should start in childhood
to prevent skin cancer later in life.
Questions & Answers
Q: When Do I need to protect myself from sun
A: Protection from sun exposure is important all
year round, not just during the summer or at the
beach. Any time the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays
are able to reach the earth, you need to protect
yourself from excessive sun exposure.
UV rays can cause skin damage during any
season or temperature. Relatively speaking, the
hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. during daylight
savings time (9 a.m. - 3 p.m. during standard
time) are the most hazardous for UV exposure in
the continental United States. UV radiation is
the greatest during the late spring and early
summer in North America.
Remember: UV rays reach you on cloudy and
hazy days, as well as on bright and sunny days.
UV rays will also reflect off any surface like
water, cement, sand, and snow.
Q: How can I protect myself from the sun's UV
A: When possible, avoid outdoor activities
during midday, when the sun's rays are
strongest.This usually means the hours between
10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
You can also wear protective clothing,such as
a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt, and long
pants.For eye protection, wear wraparound
sunglasses that provide 100 percent UV ray
protection. And always wear a broad-spectrum
(protection against both UVA and UVB rays)
sunscreen and lipscreen with at least SPF 15.
Remember to reapply as indicated by the
manufacturer's directions. Also, check the
sunscreen's expiration date. Sunscreen without
an expiration date has a shelf life of no more
than three years. Exposure to extreme
temperatures can shorten the expiration date or
shelf life of sunscreen.
Q: What does a suntan indicate? Why does
the skin tan when exposed to the sun?
A: The penetration of UV rays to the skin's
inner layer results in the production of more
melanin. That melanin eventually moves toward
the outer layers of the skin and becomes visible
as a tan.
A suntan is not an indicator of good health.
Some physicians consider the skin's tanning a
response to injury because it appears after the
sun's UV rays have killed some cells and damaged
Q: Does it matter what kind of sunscreen I
A: Sunscreens come in a variety of forms
such as lotions, gels, and sprays, so there are
plentyof different options. There are also
sunscreens made for specific purposes, such as
the scalp, sensitive skin, and for use on
babies. Regardless of the type of sunscreen you
choose, be sure that you use one that blocks
both UVA and UVB rays and that it offers at
least SPF 15.
Q: What does a sunscreen's SPF rating
A: Sunscreens are assigned a Sun Protection
Factor (SPF) number according to their
effectiveness in offering protection from UV
rays. Higher numbers indicate more protection.
As a rule of thumb, you should always use a
sunscreen with at least SPF 15.
Q: Do sunscreens need to be reapplied
during the course of a day?
A: You should follow the manufacturer's
directions regarding reapplication or you risk
not getting the protection that you might think
you are getting. Though recently developed
sunscreens are more resistant to loss through
sweating and getting wet than previous
sunscreens were, you should still reapply
frequently, especially during peak sun hours or
after swimming or sweating.
Q: What kinds of clothing best protect my
skin from UV rays?
A: Clothing that covers your skin protects
against the sun's UV rays. Loose-fitting
long-sleeved shirts and long pants made from
tightly woven fabric offer the best protection.
A wet t-shirt offers you much less UV protection
than does a dry one.
If wearing this type of clothing isn't
practical, at least try to wear a t-shirt or a
beach cover-up. Keep in mind, however, that a
typical t-shirt actually has an SPF rating
substantially lower than the recommended SPF 15,
so double-up on protection by using sunscreen
with at least SPF 15 (and UVA and UVB
protection) and staying in the shade when you
Q: It gets so hot here in the summer,
there's no way I could be comfortable in long
pants and along-sleeved shirt. So, what else can
I do to protect my skin?
A: Protecting yourself from the sun's UV
rays doesn't have to be a major chore; it's just
a matter of knowing your options and using them.
Wearing a dry t-shirt is a good start, but it is
not enough if you are going to be outside for
more than a few minutes.
If you can't wear long pants and a
long-sleeved shirt, you can boost your
protection by seeking shade whenever possible
and by always wearing sunscreen with at least
Q: Will a hat help protect my skin? Are
there recommended styles for the best
A: Hats can help shield your skin from the
sun's UV rays. Choose a hat that provides shade
for all of your head and neck. For the most
protection, wear a hat with a brim all the way
around that shades your face, ears, and the back
of your neck.
If you choose to wear a baseball cap, you
should also protect your ears and the back of
your neck by wearing clothing that covers those
areas, using sunscreen with at least SPF 15, or
by staying in the shade. The amount of shade
offered by a particular hat appears to be its
most important prevention characteristic. If a
darker hat is an option, though, it may offer
even more UV protection.
Q: Are sunglasses an important part of my
sun protection plan?
A: Yes. Sunglasses protect your eyes from UV
rays and reduce the risk of cataracts. They also
protect the tender skin around your eyes from
Q: What type of sunglasses best protects
my eyes from UV rays?
A: Sunglasses that block both UVA and UVB
rays offer the best protection. The majority of
sunglasses sold in the United States, regardless
of cost, meet this standard. Wrap-around
sunglasses work best because they block UV rays
from sneaking in from the side.
Q: Is there any particular time I should
try to stay in the shade?
A: The sun's UV rays are strongest and do
the most damage during midday, so it's best to
avoid direct exposure between 10:00 a.m. and
4:00 p.m. You can reduce your risk of skin
damage and skin cancer by seeking shade under an
umbrella, tree, or other shelter before you need
relief from the sun.
Q: I work outdoors all summer and can't
stay in the shade. What can I do to protect my
A: If you can't avoid the sun, you can
protect your skin by wearing a wide-brimmed hat,
wraparound sunglasses that block both UVA and
UVB rays, long-sleeved shirt, and long pants.
You can also wear a sunscreen and lipscreen
with at least SPF 15 and UVA and UVB protection
and reapply according to the manufacturer's
directions. When you can, take your breaks and
your lunch in the shade.
Q: If I stay in the shade, should I still
use sunscreen and wear a hat?
A: UV rays can reflect off virtually any
surface (including sand, snow and concrete) and
can reach you in the shade. Your best bet to
protect your skin and lips is to use sunscreen
or wear protective clothing when you're outside
--- even when you're in the shade.
You can improve your chances of finding skin
cancer promptly by performing a simple skin
The best time to do this self-exam is after a
shower or bath. You should check your skin in a
well-lighted room using a full-length mirror and
a hand-held mirror. It's best to begin by
learning where your birthmarks, moles, and
blemishes are and what they usually look like.
Check for anything new--a change in the size,
texture, or color of a mole, or a sore that does
not heal. Check all areas, including the back,
the scalp, between the buttocks, and the genital
1. Look at the front and back of your body in
the mirror, then raise your arms and look at the
left and right sides.
2.Bend your elbows and look carefully at your
palms; forearms, including the undersides; and
the upper arms.
3. Examine the back and front of your legs.
Also look between your buttocks and around your
4. Sit and closely examine your feet,
including the soles and the spaces between the
5. Look at your face, neck, and scalp. You
may want to use a comb or a blow dryer to move
hair so that you can see better.
By checking your skin regularly, you will
become familiar with what is normal. If you find
anything unusual, see your doctor right away.
Remember, the earlier skin cancer is found, the
better the chance for cure.