Medicine / Dermatology
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Get burned.

March 10, 2010

Ayne Amjad, MD, MPH



Summer is approaching and many people are planning beach vacations. The feeling of warm sun on your skin, the smell of the ocean, and the sand in your feet is a treat that many of us have enjoyed. What many of us do not think about are the dangers of sun exposure. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. The two most common are: basal cell & squamous cell carcinomas, and are highly curable. However, melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous, especially among young people. About 65%-90% of melanomas are caused by exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light (1). According to the CDC, since 1973, there has been a 150% increase in the number of melanoma cases in the United States. The majority of sun exposure occurs during childhood and adolescence.

Basal cell carcinoma, which accounts for 75% of all skin cancers, rarely spreads to other organs. Squamous cell carcinoma, which accounts for 20% of all skin cancers, has a higher likelihood of spreading to the lymph nodes and internal organs and causing death, but these outcomes are also rare. Melanoma is nearly always curable in its early stages, but it is most likely to spread to other parts of the body if detected late. Melanoma most often appears on the trunk of men and the lower legs of women, although it also might be found on the head or neck. Family history of melanoma is a strong risk factor for developing melanoma.

Skin cancer is largely preventable by limiting exposure to the primary source of UV radiation, which is sunlight. Sunlamps and tanning beds are other sources. The two most important types of UV radiation are UV-A and UV-B radiation. UV-A rays are not absorbed by the ozone layer, penetrate deeply into the skin, and cause premature aging and possibly suppression of the immune system. Up to 90% of the visible changes commonly attributable to aging are caused by sun exposure. UV-B rays, which are partially absorbed by the ozone layer, tan and sometimes burn the skin. The SPF label on sunscreen is indicative of the protection against UV-B radiation only.

It is strongly recommended to wear a minimum of SPF 30, sunglasses, a wide brim hat, and to avoid sun exposure during11am -1pm, when the UV rays are strongest. Looking good is important, but keep in mind that wrinkles, discolored moles, and skin cancer is not pretty.

References:
(1) Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Guidelines for school programs to prevent skin cancer. MMWR 2002;51(No. RR-4):1-16.
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