International Skin Cancer Awareness Network

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Avoid the SUN

  • PROTECTING THE SKIN (To Tan Or Not To Tan?)

    Is tanned skin really healthy skin? Now is the time to find out, before it's too late.

    There is no safe way to tan.

    Any time skin darkens it is trying to protect itself from the damage the sun is inflicting upon it. There is presently no way to stimulate the skin to increase its pigmentation without damaging it first. Over time, tan skin turns into prematurely wrinkled, leathery, sagging skin that has an increased risk of developing skin cancer.

    Skin cancer is the most common human malignancy.

    Each year there are approximately 600,000 cases of skin cancer in the United States. The majority are basal cell carcinomas which are usually readily curable and leave only a scar. More alarmingly, for Caucasians there is a one in 105 lifetime risk of developing a melanoma, and it is estimated that the risk will increase to one in 75 by the year 2000. African-Americans and Asians have a much lower incidence rate of melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers.

    A history of a blistering sunburn as a child or adolescent doubles the chance of developing a melanoma.

    The sun's rays which reach the earth are divided into radiowaves, infra-red, visible and ultraviolet (UV) rays. Ultraviolet A and B rays permanently damage the skin. In the past, ultraviolet B rays were considered burning rays and ultraviolet A as "safe" tanning rays. It is now known that both types of ultraviolet rays injure the skin.

    The UVB rays penetrate the epidermis (top layer of the skin) and are the principal cause of sunburn and skin cancer; they also contribute to premature aging of the skin. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply, damaging the supporting structure of the skin, thus causing premature wrinkling. UVA rays also exacerbate the damage inflicted by UVB rays.

    The amount of ultraviolet radiation one receives depends on many factors. More ultraviolet radiation reaches the earth's surface at higher altitudes and lower latitudes. Many surfaces will reflect ultraviolet radiation. Sand can reflect up to 25 percent and water can reflect from one percent to almost 100 percent depending on the time of day. Clouds do not provide adequate filtration of ultraviolet radiation; up to 80 percent of ultraviolet rays can penetrate through a cloud covering.

    Infrared rays, which give the feeling of warmth, are filtered more efficiently by clouds so there is a tendency to stay outdoors longer. Consequently, many people get severe sunburns on cloudy days.

    American Academy of Dermatology Guidelines
    for limiting sun-induced aging of the skin
    Decreases your chance of skin cancer

    • Limit sun exposure between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. when ultraviolet rays are the most intense.
    • Be aware that some medications can increase sensitivity to the sun. If you take medications, ask your health care provider about them.
    • Use a sunscreen to protect your skin.


    Sunscreens are divided into physical barriers, such as titanium dioxide, zinc oxide ointment, which reflect or scatter all light, and chemical barriers, which absorb ultraviolet light. The chemical barriers have different absorption spectrums. Cinnamates, salicylates, and PABA provide UVB protection, benzophenones provide both UVA and UVB protection, and parsol provides UVA protection. Chemical sunscreens are rated by sun protection factors (SPF). The higher the number, the more the UVB protection. An SPF of 15 allows one to stay in the sun 15 times longer before burning, compared to unprotected skin.

    The lighter one's natural skin color, the higher the risk of developing skin cancer and the more protection is needed. Pigmented skin compared to the lightest white skin has a built-in sunscreen of 3 to 33, depending on the degree of pigmentation.

    The American Academy of Dermatology recommends ultra-protective sunscreens with an SPF >15. The American Cancer Society recommendations for choosing an appropriate sunscreen:

    Guide to Sunscreen Selection Based Upon an Individual's Skin Type
    Burns on first unprotected sun exposure

     Skin Type      Seasonal Sun       Tans              SPF        
    I easily and always never 15 or greater
    II easily and usual minimal 15 or greater
    III sometimes gradual 8
    IV minimal always 8
    V, VI never always/well 2

    Information is never a dangerous thing - unless the person giving you that information makes money telling you to do something that will cause short-term injury and end your life prematurely from skin cancer.

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