Simple Steps to Reduce Your Skin Cancer Risk

Killer Tan Tombstone

Skin cancer is the most common of all cancers. It accounts for nearly half of all cancers in the United States. More than 3.5 million cases of basal and squamous cell skin cancer are diagnosed in this country each year.  Melanoma, the most serious type of skin cancer, will account for more than 76,000 cases of skin cancer in 2012. Fortunately, all skin cancers are highly treatable if found early.

Risk factors include:

  • Unprotected and/or excessive exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation (sunlight or tanning booths) Pale complexion (difficulty tanning, easily sunburned, natural red or blond hair color)
  • Occupational exposures to coal tar, pitch, creosote, arsenic compounds, or radium
  • You or other members of your family have had skin cancers
  • Multiple or unusual moles
  • Severe sunburns in the past

The best ways to lower your risk of skin cancer are to avoid long exposure to intense sunlight and practice sun safety. You can still exercise and enjoy the outdoors while using sun safety at the same time. Here are some ways to play it safe in the sun:


  • Avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Seek shade: Look for shade, especially in the middle of the day when the sun’s rays are strongest. Practice the shadow rule and teach it to children. If your shadow is shorter than you, the sun’s rays are at their strongest.
  • Slip on a shirt: Cover up with protective clothing to guard as much skin as possible when you are out in the sun. Choose comfortable clothes made of tightly woven fabrics that you cannot see through when held up to a light.
  • Slop on sunscreen: Use sunscreen and lip balm with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. Apply a generous amount of sunscreen (about a palmful) and reapply every 2 hours and after swimming, toweling dry, or sweating. Use sunscreen even on hazy or overcast days.
  • Slap on a hat: Cover your head with a wide-brimmed hat, shading your face, ears, and neck. If you choose a baseball cap, remember to protect your ears and neck with sunscreen.
  • Wrap on sunglasses: Wear sunglasses with 99% to 100% UV absorption to provide optimal protection for the eyes and the surrounding skin.
  • Follow these practices to protect your skin even on cloudy or overcast days. UV rays travel through clouds.
  • Avoid other sources of UV light. Tanning beds and sun lamps are dangerous. They also damage your skin in other ways.

    Relay For Life caps

You can protect your face with this stylish Relay For Life hat, available at

What to look for

Important warning signs of melanoma include changes in size, shape, or color of a mole or other skin lesion or the appearance of a new growth on the skin. Changes that occur over a few days are usually not cancer, but changes that progress over a month or more should be evaluated by a doctor. Basal cell carcinomas may appear as growths that are flat, or as small, raised, pink or red, translucent, shiny areas that may bleed following minor injury. Squamous cell cancer may appear as growing lumps, often with a rough surface, or as flat, reddish patches that grow slowly. Another
sign of basal and squamous cell skin cancers is a sore that doesn’t heal.

What about fake tans?

Bronzers and extenders are considered cosmetics for external use and are not thought to be harmful when used properly.  Bronzers, made from color additives approved by the FDA for cosmetic use, stain the skin for a short time when applied and can be washed off with soap and water.  Extenders (also known as sunless tanners or self-tanners) are applied to the skin as lotions or creams, where they interact with proteins on the surface of the skin to produce a darker color. Like a tan, the color tends to wear off after a few days. The only FDA-approved color additive for extenders is dihydroxyacetone (DHA).

Applying these products by hand can sometimes lead to uneven coloring, so some tanning salons have begun to offer whole body sprays in tanning booths. A concern here is that DHA is approved for external use only and should not be inhaled or sprayed in or on the mouth, eyes, or nose. People who choose to get a DHA spray should make sure to protect these areas.

These products can give skin a darker color, but they don’t offer much protection from the damaging effects of UV radiation. Even if they contain sunscreen, it would only be effective for a couple of hours. You should read the label carefully to determine whether or not a product provides any protection, but in most cases it is probably safest to continue to use sunscreen and wear protective clothing when going outside.

Avoid tanning beds! They increase your risk of developing melanoma. Read more about tanning beds and skin cancer.