Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the world, and is caused mainly by exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Phoenix and Tucson get 310 sunny days a year – a blessing and a curse.
As Arizonans transition from spring to summer, skin cancer awareness programs ramp up in concert with the swiftly escalating temperatures. By the time the mid-summer monsoons hit, these messages start to fall off our radar. When the weather once again is hospitable after fall rolls around, many of us are back to enjoying the outdoors without adequate sun protection.
Reducing our risk of skin cancer, however, is a year-round activity. In Tucson, we’re lucky to have a team of cancer experts at our fingertips. Lisa Quale, health educator at the University of Arizona Cancer Center’s Skin Cancer Institute, works with the community to help people learn the best ways to enjoy the sun’s benefits while protecting themselves from cancer-causing UV radiation.
Each Tuesday, throughout the month of August, the UA Cancer Center will present “Bear Down. Beat Cancer. Top 5 Strategies for Reducing Skin Cancer Risk.” Employing these strategies in combination will give us the best protection of all.
Top Five Strategy No. 1: Avoid the Sun
The No. 1 tip for avoiding skin cancer is to avoid the thing that most often causes skin cancer – the sun. More specifically, the sun’s UV rays are what burn our skin and give us skin cancer, not to mention these rays hasten aging by causing wrinkles, sagging and liver spots. There are two types of UV rays we need to worry about: UVA and UVB (UVC rays can’t penetrate our atmosphere). According to the American Cancer Society, both types of UV rays cause long-term damage and can lead to skin cancer.
- UVA radiation is just outside the spectrum of visible light, with wavelengths too short for humans to see, but long enough to reach deep into the layers of human skin, where it causes tanning but also does damage.
- UVB radiation has even shorter wavelengths and damages the top layers of our skin causing redness or sunburn. Luckily, it can’t pass through most fabrics or glass. Although they can cause damage year-round, UVB rays tend to be more intense during the summer months and weaker during wintertime. The “peak hours” for UVB exposure are between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., corresponding to the more direct angle at which the sun’s rays are hitting the earth. Try to get your errands done in the early morning and in the evening.
- Cloudy days can be cooler, but do not be lulled into a false sense of security: 70 to 80 percent of UV radiation can pass through thin clouds, making sunburn possible. When you are outside, seek shade.
- “Umbrellas are a great way to achieve some personal shade,” says Quale. Look for umbrellas treated with a UV coating; otherwise, look for dark colors if you have access only to regular umbrellas. Umbrellas and other forms of shade do not match sunscreen in terms of sun protection and cannot be your only strategy, as UV rays can be reflected off of water, glass, concrete, sand and snow – meaning that exposure to these reflective surfaces can increase your UV exposure. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, white sand and other bright surfaces can effectively double your UV exposure.
- Compared to Phoenix, Tucson is at a relatively high altitude (2,950 feet vs. 1,160 feet), which means we have less protective atmosphere between the sun and our skin. Our southern location also means we are closer to the equator – and UV intensity increases with proximity to the equator.
- Avoid tanning beds. Indoor tanning is not safer than exposure to sunlight, and just one session with a tanning bed can increase one’s melanoma risk by 20 percent. Sunless tanning options are available, such as bronzing or spray-on products; remember you still will need to wear sunscreen outdoors, as the darker color won’t protect you from UV rays.
Your skin health is important regardless of the season. Stay tuned throughout the month for more strategies on reducing your skin cancer risk every day of the year. To request an appointment with a dermatologist, please call the UA Cancer Center at 520-694-2873 or request an appointment online here and select dermatology as the specialty.