According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime. If that’s not daunting enough, the American Cancer Society claims that an American dies almost every hour from melanoma — the most serious form of skin cancer.
Sun exposure is the main cause of skin cancer, and the fact that many skin cancers develop slowly puts older adults at higher risk. The damage that occurred during childhood or adolescence may not express itself until decades later. Many older adults spent the long hot summers of their youth soaking up the rays making very little effort to protect their skin. The scary thing is — despite decades of medical advice to the contrary — experts estimate that 40 percent of Americans still refuse to use sunscreen.
Skin cancer occurs when cells that contain damaged DNA — the material that encodes our genetic information — grow and divide uncontrollably. “The sun’s ultraviolet rays essentially subject the skin to a dose of radiation, some of which is absorbed by the skin’s cells and attacks DNA,” says Dr. Ellen Marmur, chief of Mount Sinai School of Medicine’s division of dermatologic and cosmetic surgery. Even if you have always tanned easily, you shouldn’t rely on that to continue as you age. “Melanin — the pigment that gives your skin its color and to some extent acts as a natural sunscreen — is less active in older skin,” Dr. Marmur adds.
So, who’s at risk? As a rule, you’re at higher risk if you’re fair skinned and freckle, burn easily, have lots of moles and/or if you have a family history of skin cancer. However, research has confirmed 43 other factors that contribute to melanoma. The six factors pinpointed as being the most important are: a history of blistering sunburns as a teenager, red or blond hair, marked freckling of the upper back, a family history of melanoma, a history of early-stage skin cancer and outdoor summer jobs for three or more years as a teenager. According to researchers, having just one of these six factors can raise your risk of melanoma two to threefold, two or more factors and the risk increases five to 10 times and those with three or more risk factors have a 10 to 20 times increased risk.
Here are some precautions to help you practice “safe sun” this summer:
Pay attention to the UV Index, which predicts the amount of UV radiation on a zero to 10 scale. Take precautions against overexposure, whenever the Index is five or above. Avoid excessive sun exposure between the hours of 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest, and wear a broad-spectrum SPF-30 or higher sunscreen year-round. And wear a hat with at least a 3-inch brim to protect your face, ears and back of neck.
Finally, check your body for sun damage monthly using the ABCDE rule for detecting melanoma. A is for Asymmetry — the shape of one half of a skin spot differs from the other. B for border — look for a ragged or blurred edge. C is color — watch for uneven color, which could be shades of brown, black, tan, red, white or blue. D represents diameter — keep an eye out for any significant change that increases the size of a mole to greater than a quarter inch. And, E stands for evolving — any skin spot that is changing needs to be examined by a dermatologist.
Also, don’t forget that eyes get sunburnt, too. Effective sunglasses need to be rated to block out 99 to 100 percent of UV radiation. Use sunglasses with large lenses that wrap around for maximum protection.