Anthony J. Alberg, PhD, MPH, is a professor and chair of the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics at the University of South Carolina’s Arnold School of Public Health. A cancer epidemiologist with strong interests in skin cancer, Dr. Alberg formerly served as the chair of ASCO’s Cancer Prevention Committee and chaired the committee that developed ASCO’s Skin Cancer Prevention Policy Statement. Madison Newton is a recent graduate from the University of South Carolina with a B.S. in Public Health. She has been assisting Dr. Alberg in various skin cancer research opportunities and has been an advocate for legislation about teen skin cancer prevention in South Carolina.
While it’s important to protect your skin from the sun during the summer, it’s equally important to protect your skin throughout the rest of the year, too. This includes during the chilly winter months or even on rainy spring days. This is because for certain types of skin cancer, such as squamous cell carcinoma, the cancer risks from sun exposure accumulate throughout your lifetime. So even though the strength of the solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation may be less in winter compared with summer, it still increases your overall skin cancer risk.
Here’s what to know about protecting your skin all 12 months out of the year, including the best ways to do so.
What are the most common misperceptions around skin cancer prevention?
People often do not realize how incredibly common skin cancer is. There are 3 main types of skin cancer which, in combination, make skin cancer far and away the most common type of cancer in the world. Not only that, but the trends in the occurrence of skin cancer are increasing.
People also often do not know that because the effects of sunlight are cumulative, the earlier in life skin cancer prevention starts, the better. This includes parents protecting their infants and young children from unprotected exposure to direct sunlight. Parents can do things like take advantage of shaded areas for outdoor play, use covered strollers when out for walks during daylight hours, and educate their children about the lifelong importance of skin protection. However, you should also know that it is never too late to reduce your risk by adopting sun-protection behaviors at any age.
Finally, there are common misperceptions about skin cancer in people of color. For a given amount of sunlight exposure, the risk of skin cancer is lower in people of color than for fair-skinned people. But it is also true that people of color are still at risk for developing skin cancer, and many people are unaware that skin cancer may still occur in people of color. Unfortunately, because of this misunderstanding, people of color are less likely to engage in sun-protection behaviors and are often diagnosed with later-stage skin cancers.
What are some ways people can protect their skin from the sun year-round?
There are many ways to protect your skin from the damaging effects of sunlight any time of year, including:
Avoiding sunlight by staying indoors when possible. This is especially true for avoiding sunlight during the hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when UV radiation from the sun is most intense.
Wearing sun-protective clothing to protect your skin when outdoors in sunlight. This includes wearing long-sleeved shirts, long pants, wide-brimmed hats, and sunglasses.
Any skin that is not protected by clothing should be protected by using sunscreen with a high sun protection factor (SPF). When relying on sunscreen, it is important to use generous amounts and reapply sunscreen regularly to maintain strong protection.
How can indoor tanning devices increase my risk of skin cancer?
Just as UV radiation from the sun causes skin cancer, so, too, does artificial UV radiation from indoor tanning devices. Because of this, indoor tanning devices should be avoided. However, despite the knowledge that these devices can cause skin cancer, the use of indoor tanning devices remains far too common, especially among non-Hispanic white adolescent females.
One of us (Madison) has a personal story to share about this:
“Growing up, my friends and I always carpooled to school, and whoever’s mom picked us up that day would drop us off at the tanning bed. This started as early as 7th grade because even at that young age, we felt being tan meant being beautiful. Considering my olive skin, dark features, and hardly any freckles, I don’t have the stereotypical features of someone susceptible to skin cancer. However, I was diagnosed with precancerous form of melanoma during my junior year of high school after years of using tanning beds. If I knew then what I know now, I never would have used tanning beds. Because of my experience, I became a first-generation college student and began pursuing my dream of becoming a dermatologist so that I can push for preventive skin care measures and educate others on the harmful effects of UV radiation.”
Education around skin cancer prevention is important for all of us, but especially for children, adolescents, and their parents to prevent skin cancer early in life. The ASCO policy statement, for example, endorses the widely held view that those younger than 18 years of age should be prohibited from using indoor tanning devices. This would prevent scenarios like Madison’s experience. If we can prevent the use of indoor tanning devices among people younger than 18 and be active in taking sun-protection measures, this will prevent thousands of skin cancer deaths.