Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in the United States. There are different types of this disease. The two most common are basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer. Melanoma, another type, is less common, but more dangerous. Nearly 70,000 Americans are diagnosed with melanoma each year, and it causes 8,700 deaths. Melanoma is now twice as common as it was two decades ago. The increase is so dramatic that the U.S. Surgeon General has issued a call to action to take steps to prevent melanoma.
One way to protect yourself from skin cancer is by protecting your skin from getting too much of the sun's ultraviolet light. It's especially important to avoid getting sunburned, as this increases the risk of melanoma. Using sunscreen and wearing protective clothing, including a hat with a brim, are good ways to do this.
While sun protection is important for adults, it's even more important for children. Most of the average American's sun exposure happens before age 18. Even a couple of blistering sunburns in childhood increase the risk of later skin cancer.
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Dr. Robert S. Stern, chair of the Department of Dermatology at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center , calls them "solar-phobes": people so concerned about getting skin cancer that they stay inside or cover every bit of skin. "They cover up like they were going out into the Arabian Desert ," he says. The marketing of ultrablocking sunscreens and special sun-protective clothing plays into these fears.
There's no getting around the fact that sunlight is hard on your skin. Age gets blamed for wrinkles and rough, dry skin. But the real culprit is a combination of age and sun that dermatologists call photoaging. The short UVB wavelengths that cause sunburn can also damage DNA and suppress the skin's immune system. The longer, more penetrating UVA wavelengths may create highly reactive oxygen molecules capable of damaging skin cell membranes and the DNA inside.
The relationship between sun exposure and skin cancer risk isn't as straightforward as you might think. Genes are a factor, of course: Some protect, some promote. So is skin type: People with pale skin who sunburn easily and don't tan are more likely to get sun-related skin cancer. As for exposure, the "dose" and its timing are crucial. Several studies have suggested that suddenly getting a lot of sun is more dangerous then steady exposure over time.