The Importance of Wearing Sunscreen

The summer months are finally here, and with more Americans vaccinated against COVID-19, this summer looks to be more normal than last year’s. For most of us that means treks to the beach, sporting events and social gatherings, which can help us recover from the trying months that we have all recently endured.

However, more time outdoors brings additional risks as well. Just because you didn’t get COVID-19 doesn’t mean you should ignore all of the other dangers to your health. Foremost among these summer dangers is skin cancer which strikes one in five Americans. Luckily, some commonsense practices like applying sunscreen can dramatically reduce this risk.

The Danger of Skin Cancer

Cancer is the uncontrollable growth of abnormal cells, and skin cancer is, of course, when that growth involves skin cells. The leading cause of skin cancer is exposure to harmful ultraviolet radiation, either from the sun or UV tanning beds. Ultraviolet light is very damaging and can mutate the DNA of skin cells.

Over time, this damage to the DNA—which is the blueprint for future skin cells—accumulates, and these mutations may produce cancerous cells. The amount of damage that occurs depends on the intensity of the UV rays and the amount of time exposed to the radiation. So, if you live in an area where the sun is quite intense year-round, and you spend a lot of time outdoors, then you are at higher risk of developing skin cancer.

There are three common kinds of skin cancer.

  • Basal cell carcinoma—this kind of skin cancer arises from the basal cells which are found in the epidermis or outermost layer of skin. Basal cell carcinomas arise most often on the head, neck, shoulders and back where ultraviolet ray exposure is most likely to occur. Over 3.6 million cases of BCC are diagnosed in the U.S. annually, but only in rare cases is this kind of skin cancer fatal.
  • Squamous cell carcinoma—squamous cells are also found in the epidermal (outermost) layer of skin and are also at high risk of becoming cancerous if exposed to UV light for prolonged periods. Almost 1.8 million cases of SCC are diagnosed annually in the U.S., with about 15,000 deaths. Most cases of SCC can be treated effectively if detected early.
  • Melanoma—this kind of skin cancer develops in melanocytes, which are skin cells that produce melanin pigment. Melanomas often look like moles and may occur on any part of the body, including those not often exposed to the sun. About 207,000 cases of melanoma are diagnosed annually in the U.S., and about 7,200 melanoma-related deaths occur in the U.S. annually.

The Good News

If you spend a lot of time outdoors, the risk of developing skin cancer can be frightening. Almost 20 percent of people will develop skin cancer by the time they are 70. If you have the following features you may be at higher risk:

  • Lighter skin tone
  • Prone to sun burn, freckling or reddening in the sun
  • Blue or green eyes
  • Blond or red hair
  • Family history of skin cancer
  • Advanced age

There is some good news, however.  You can lower your risk of developing skin cancer by wearing sunscreen. Daily applications of sunscreen of SPF 15 can lower the risk of squamous cell carcinoma by 40 percent and melanoma by 50 percent. Sunscreen can also help prevent premature aging including wrinkles, sagging and age spots.

Sunscreen helps prevent damage to your skin cells by utilizing minerals and chemicals that block ultraviolet light. Minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide prevent ultraviolet rays from reaching the skin by scattering them, while chemicals like avobenzone and octisalate absorb these harmful rays.

Sunscreen is graded by its SPF which stands for Sun Protection Factor. This is the amount of time it will take for the sun’s UV rays to redden your skin. So, if you use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30, it will take 30 times longer to burn than if you used no sunscreen.

You may be wondering what SPF is right for you. If you are mostly indoors and only occasionally out in direct sunlight, then you can get by with a sunscreen that has an SPF of 15 or higher. If you spend a lot of time outdoors or when the sun is strongest, then you should use a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher. It is important to remember that sunscreen will lose efficacy after two hours, so you should re-apply sunscreen after two hours has elapsed.

Also look for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that offers protection against both ultraviolet A and B rays. UVB rays cause sunburn, while UVA rays cause tanning and premature aging; in the past, it was believed that only UVB rays were dangerous, but we now understand that both kinds of UV light are quite harmful and can cause skin cancer.

While UVB rays are slightly more intense than UVA rays, UVB rays only penetrate the outermost skin layer. Furthermore, almost 95 percent of the ultraviolet light that reaches us on Earth is UVA. You should also keep in mind that UVA light can penetrate clouds and glass, while glass will shield you from UVB rays.

Things to Keep in Mind

You may not feel that sunscreen is an important consideration because you are mostly indoors, have a darker skin tone, or wear thick clothing, but there are some things you should think about:

  • Skin damage accumulates over a lifetime. Everything you do to minimize your exposure will lower that lifetime risk.
  • You should be an example to your children. Instilling in them the habit of wearing sunscreen may save them enormous pain or, even, death down the road.
  • You can now use sunscreen in more convenient forms like sprays or moisturizers.
  • You are protecting yourself from more than just skin cancer; UV light causes wrinkles, freckles and age spotting.
  • The protective ozone layer is depleting, making harmful UV exposure a growing risk.

Article written by: Dr. Robert Moghim – CEO/Founder Colorado Pain Care

M.D. Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are the personal views of Robert Moghim, M.D. and do not necessarily represent and are not intended to represent the views of the company or its employees.  The information contained in this article does not constitute medical advice, nor does reading or accessing this information create a patient-provider relationship.  Comments that you post will be shared with all visitors to this page. The comment feature is not governed by HIPAA and you should not post any of your private health information.