Updated: May 23
May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month - a month that hits close to home for me because my dad had some skin cancer removed a few years ago. If not detected/treated early, skin cancer can become very dangerous, so education & awareness is key. It's also an important month for me because in part, it centers around my favorite skin care product: sunscreen.
Besides protecting your skin from signs of aging including hyperpigmentation & fine lines/wrinkles (you can read more about that here) sunscreen is key in protecting your cells from UV-induced DNA damage, helping to prevent cancer from forming. Yep, you read that right - daily use of SPF helps prevent skin cancer.
Here’s the low-down on what skin cancer is, how UV rays play a role, & how to protect ya self before ya wreck ya self.
What is skin cancer?
Skin cancer is the out-of-control growth of abnormal cells in the epidermis (outermost layer of skin) caused by DNA damage. Most skin cancers are caused by too much exposure to ultraviolet (UV) rays. There are three main types: basal cell carcinoma (most common), squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma (least common but most dangerous).
Melanoma can be more difficult to catch, because it resembles an atypical mole. Not every atypical mole is a melanoma, but since melanoma can spread to your other organs & become lethal, it’s important to recognize the warning signs, or the ABCDE’s of melanoma. When in doubt, get it checked out! Go to your dermatologist or doctor if you have any symptoms or concerns related to skin cancer.
Here’s a fun fact: daily use of an SPF 15+ will reduce your risk of developing skin cancer by almost 50%. We’re going to come back to this factoid in a bit, but for now, let’s dive into...
How UV rays cause skin cancer
UV, AKA ultraviolet light, is radiation energy from the sun. There are two forms: UVA & UVB. Both rays damage the cellular structure of your skin, making you more susceptible to skin cancer, which can happen ANYWHERE that UV rays (or daylight) touch - such as palms of hands, soles of feet, or your scalp. There is no safe amount of unprotected UV exposure.
A quick note on common misconceptions:
“A base suntan is healthy & protects you from sunburn” - False. A tan is the result of your body defending itself against further damage from UV radiation. (Read this post to learn a little more about melanin production in the skin). Any change in your skin’s natural color is a sign of damage to your skin- so no, a base suntan isn’t healthy. A healthier alternative is spray tanning or using a self-tanner.
“If you take breaks from being in the sun you're less likely to get burnt” - False. UV radiation exposure is cumulative & continues long after you leave the sun. That’s why you tend to wake up more tan, or why your sunburn seems to get worse the next day. Also, the heat from the sun is caused by infrared radiation, not by UV rays - so even if you can’t feel the sun’s rays, you could still be exposed to UV.
You know what helps protect your skin from UV rays? That’s right - Sunscreen.
How to understand SPF
SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, measures how much UVB protection a sunscreen product will provide when liberally applied to the skin.
SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. That might not sound like a big difference, but think about it this way: SPF 50 lets in 2% of rays, while SPF 15 lets in 7%. A lower SPF lets in 3x as many UVB rays!
Remember that fun fact that daily use of SPF 15 will reduce your risk of developing skin cancer by almost 50%? Consistent use of SPF 30+ gives you even more protection - making it a nonnegotiable in your skin care routine. Keep in mind that SPF refers to UVB rays specifically, so look for one labeled broad-spectrum protection to make sure you have UVA coverage as well.
Other ways you can protect your skin: wear UV protective clothing, avoid tanning beds, & get regular skin check-ups to stay on top of any changes.
A final note about sunscreen: In addition to being the most important anti-aging & anti-cancer skin care product, sunscreen is also one of the most difficult to buy. It took me a while to find one that I love, but trust me - your perfect SPF is out there, too. Need some help finding it? I'm here for you!
SPF every day, baby.