What You Can Do to Lower Your Risk for Skin Cancer
It’s been one year since Vermont legislators took a significant step towards protecting our youth from a significant health hazard: indoor tanning. New legislation passed prohibits children under 18 years old from using indoor tanning devices. This may not seem like a big deal, but those of us who diagnose and treat patients with skin cancer believe it is a very important measure and are happy to see the attention this has brought to skin cancer awareness in our state.
Vermont has one of the highest rates of melanoma, which is a particularly aggressive and potentially fatal form of skin cancer. Researchers have identified excessive ultraviolet (UV) light exposure as an important risk factor for developing melanoma. This includes long-term exposure to sunlight, frequent sunburns, and use of tanning beds.
Unfortunately, many people still underestimate the risk of UV light exposure, especially when it comes to tanning beds. In 2009, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified the cancer risk of UV-emitting indoor tanning devices as Group I – “carcinogenic to humans”. Indoor tanning before the age of 30 increases a person’s risk of melanoma by at least 70 percent. Tanning is never safe; it damages the skin, causing early wrinkling and it increases an individual’s risk of all types of skin cancer.
What makes melanoma particularly tragic is that it affects Vermonters of all ages, and melanoma rates among young persons are rising significantly. Melanoma is now the most common cancer among young women aged 25-29 and is the second most common cancer among those aged 15-29 years.
Focusing on wellness and preventing disease before it occurs will save lives. No tan is worth dying for. Melanoma is a potentially preventable cancer and keeping our children out of indoor tanning beds is a powerful step in the right direction.
More on Skin Cancer Risk Factors
Skin damage from UV radiation is the most important risk factor for skin cancer. Some other known risk factors include fair skin, blonde or red hair, significant freckling, and a family history of skin cancer.
Depending on the number of risk factors present, your personal risk of melanoma may be as high as ten times the normal risk; however, it is important to know that risk factors only estimate your chance of getting skin cancer. Having one or more risk factors does not mean that you will definitely get melanoma. Conversely, many people who get skin cancer may not have any known risk factors. Regardless of your risk, it is important to avoid unnecessary sun exposure, perform regular self-skin checks and see your physician for full skin exams. Melanoma, although potentially fatal, can be cured if it is detected early.
Fortunately, protecting the skin from damaging UV light is a risk factor that one can control. Using sunscreen is an important part of a protection regimen but sunscreen alone is not enough. Additional skin cancer prevention tips include the following:
- Do not tan or use UV tanning booths.
- Do not burn.
- Avoid unprotected sun exposure especially between 10 AM and 4 PM.
- The best protection is to cover skin with clothing, including a broad-brimmed hat and UV-blocking sunglasses.
- Uncovered skin should be protected with a broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher.
- For extended outdoor activity or during times of intense sun exposure, a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or higher should be used.
- Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outside and reapply every two hours or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating.
- Keep newborns out of the sun. Sunscreens should be used on babies over the age of six months.
Ted James, MD, is a surgical oncologist and Director of the Skin and Soft Tissue Surgical Oncology program at Fletcher Allen Health Care. He also serves as Vermont State Chair for the Commission on Cancer and is an Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.
Todd Holmes, MD, is a dermatologist at Fletcher Allen Health Care. He is also assistant professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine.
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