Summer 2021 is finally here and many of us have never anticipated a season more in our lives. Coronavirus numbers are finally down and many have protected themselves with the COVID vaccine which makes it safer to get back to vacations, social gatherings, cookouts, and the lake! Since we are venturing back into the glorious sun, we could all use a reminder about preventing sunburns from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. I commonly hear about “getting that first sunburn of the summer” but just 5 sunburns double your risk for skin cancer. Prolonged direct UV ray exposure is by far the most significant risk factor for developing skin cancer. And because we all experience some degree of sun throughout our lives, skin cancer is the most common cancer with an occurrence of 1 in 5 people. It is important to know that all skin types can develop skin cancer, including melanoma, but are much more common in lighter skin. The good news is that most skin cancers are treatable and can remove before causing a serious problem. There are 3 main types of skin cancer: squamous cell, basal cell, and melanoma. Of them, the basal cell is the most common and easiest to cure. Melanoma is the rarest but by far the most deadly. Of the roughly 12,000 people dying each year from skin cancer, melanoma accounts for almost 70%.
The best way to decrease your risk for skin cancer is to protect yourself from UV rays. We’ve all heard about using sunscreen but selecting the best type is important. The most common type of sunscreen is “chemical” based and is currently being investigated for safety concerning some of the ingredients, including oxybenzone and octinoxate. The other form of sunscreen is “mineral” based with zinc and titanium and is considered safe but commonly cast a faint white appearance. I currently recommend using high-quality, chemically reduced, or mineral sunscreen. Apply 10-15 minutes prior to sun exposure and reapply every 2 hours if you stay directly in the sun. Perhaps more protective is simply spending shorter amounts of time in direct sunlight by taking shade breaks at least every 20 minutes and to minimize direct sunlight from the highest UV hours of 10 am to 4 pm. Another important protective measure is wearing clothing and large-brimmed hats. Make sure to take extra care of the kids, since early sunburns in life increase risk for melanoma. And it is never recommended to use a tanning bed.
In terms of detecting skin cancer, it’s important to be familiar with your most sun-exposed areas such as your hands, face, and ears. Talk with your primary care physician if you notice an abnormal spot, especially if this appears to be changing size or color. Most primary care providers can diagnose and treat many early skin cancers. Finally, there is not a strong recommendation to have an annual skin check for most people, but light-skinned people with a history of melanoma should see a dermatologist every year.
Here’s to having fun and staying well this summer!
Daniel Gordon, MD
Primary Care Physician for MedLink Georgia