Virginia Commonwealth University

VCU Massey Cancer Center

Sunscreen and cancer prevention

Just using a good sunscreen may not be enough when the sun threatens your skin with harmful ultraviolet rays. The high number of sunburn cases in the U.S. is evidence that many people need to do more when it comes to protecting themselves from the sun. The stakes are high.

“Sunburn damage to the skin is a direct cause of skin cancer,” says Algin Garrett, M.D., a skin cancer specialist and chair of the Department of Dermatology at VCU Health System. “Skin cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in the U.S., and its incidences are rising.”

“This also means that the most important avoidable cause of cancer we know of is exposure to ultraviolet radiation,” Garrett concludes. “People need to do a better job of protecting themselves.”

Ultraviolet rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells. The two types of UV rays to be concerned about are UVA and UVB. Scientists believe that UVA radiation can cause damage to connective tissue and increase a person’s risk for developing skin cancer. UVB rays are less abundant because a significant portion of them is absorbed by the ozone layer. UVB rays penetrate less deeply into the skin than do UVA rays, but also can be damaging.

How to protect yourself

Experts recommend that you do all five steps.

  • Avoid excessive sun exposure year round. UV rays can cause skin damage during any season or temperature, and even on cloudy or hazy days.
  • When possible, stay out of the sun during the middle of the day, when UV rays are the strongest. 
  • Cover up. Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Protect your eyes with wraparound sunglasses that filter out 100 percent of UV rays. 
  • Always use a broad-spectrum (protection against both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen and lip balm/protectant with at least sun protection factor (SPF) of 15. Apply liberally and reapply as indicated by the manufacturer’s directions. 
  • Trust but verify. You may be doing a great job of following the guidelines above. Nevertheless, do a thorough examination of your skin once a month, top and bottom, front and back. If you see spots, blemishes or moles that are changing, ask for some advice from a medical professional.

The most deadly form of skin cancer is melanoma, which forms in the skin cells that make the pigment melanin — often as a mole. The National Cancer Institute estimates there will be 62,480 new cases of melanoma in the U.S. in 2008, and about 8,420 deaths caused by the disease. By comparison, there will be more than 1 million new cases of non-melanoma skin cancers in 2008, with fewer than 1,000 deaths.