Excessive Sun Exposure: Just Say No

Vadim Koshenkov, MDBy Vadim Koshenkov, MD

Summer is here and that means long weekends, trips to the beach, nature walks, water sports, and the general desire to spend more time outside. While some may feel a tan makes them appear healthier and perhaps even more attractive, there is no doubt that indiscriminate sun exposure is harmful. Wrinkling, premature aging of the skin, and a variety of skin cancers all stem from sun exposure. UVA and UVB rays are well-established risk factors for the development of skin cancers, such as basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. With excessive sun exposure, everybody, but especially those who are fair-skinned and burn easily, is at risk.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, and melanoma is the deadliest form of it. Approximately 10,000 deaths stem from melanoma annually in this country. A lifetime of excessive sun exposure is the biggest risk factor for the development of this cancerSunburns in childhood and adolescence, for example, have been shown to increase the chance of melanoma in adulthood. Over the last several decades, the incidence of melanoma has risen faster than any other cancer in the United States. Prognosis varies, with very high cure rates for early stages of melanoma, but considerably worse outcomes with more advanced disease. Prevention and early detection are of paramount importance in reducing the incidence and mortality of skin cancer. Here are a few tips on prevention:

  • limit your time outdoors when the sun is at its most harmful: between 10 am and 4 pm
  • if you are outdoors, cover up as much as you can: sunglasses, hats, long sleeves
  • use sunscreen of 30 SPF or higher on exposed areas
  • avoid tanning beds: evidence is mounting that they are as harmful as the UV rays that lead to skin cancers

Any concerning skin lesion or change in moles should be promptly evaluated by a physician, preferably a dermatologist, to assess the need for a biopsy. Remember the ABCDEs concerning the visual appearance for moles and lesions: A for asymmetry, B for border irregularity, C for color variation, D for a large diameter, E for evolution of the lesion or mole.  Remember, early detection leads to high cure rates of all skin cancers. So even if prevention fails, don’t miss your chance to be cured with an early intervention.

Vadim Koshenkov, MD, is a surgical oncologist who evaluates patients in the Melanoma and Soft Tissue Oncology Program at Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey and an assistant professor of surgery at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.