Avoiding Skin Cancer

Sun Protection Tips For Living In the Desert

Dermatologist examining patient for skin cancer
••• Susan Chiang/E+/Getty Images

Arizona attracts people because there are over 300 days each year of blue skies and sunshine. While it is wonderful that we can enjoy the outdoors and get some exercise (hopefully!) in the process, we also need to be aware of the long term effects of the sun. Here is what you need to know about sun protection to avoid being one of the 500,000 people in this country each year who is diagnosed with skin cancer.

Enjoy the Sun

When going outside always use a sunscreen. The higher the SPF rating of the sunscreen, the longer you can stay out before reapplying the sunscreen.

What is SPF?

SPF is an acronym for Sun Protection Factor. Take the amount of time it would take to burn without sunscreen (UV Index) and multiply it by the sunscreen's Sun Protection Factor to figure out how long you can be outside with sunscreen. For example, if it will take 15 minutes to burn today without sunscreen, and you use an SPF 8 product, you can say outside 2 hours without burning (8 x 15= 120 minutes or 2 hours).

Is It That Simple?

No, of course, it isn't! Sun Protection Factor numbers serve as a guideline. How sunscreen effects and protects you that depends on your skin type, the strength of the sunlight, the type of sunscreen you use (gel, cream, lotion, or oil), and the amount you apply. In general, don't be skimpy when applying your sunscreen, and reapply it after you have been sweating or swimming.

What If I Have Blue Eyes?

People who sunburn easily are more likely to develop skin cancer. If you have blue eyes, blonde hair, red hair or get freckles in the sun, you are at greater risk and should take even more care to protect your skin from the sun. And remember--90% of all skin cancers occur on parts of the body that are not protected by clothing like your face, ears, and hands.

When Is the Sun Most Dangerous?

In Arizona you are at the greatest risk for sunburn and need the most sun protection between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. If you happen to be outside on one of Arizona's rare cloudy days, don't think you are safe from the sun! Up to 80% of the ultraviolet rays of the sun that burn you are getting through those clouds.

Is It Safer To Tan in a Tanning Booth?

No. The UVB and UVA radiation from sun lamps and other tanning devices can be dangerous.

What Else Can I Do To Protect Myself?

It is very important to check your skin regularly to see if you notice any changes in your skin. See your doctor if you notice any changes in moles you might have or if a sore on your skin does not heal.

The Four Warning Signs of Cancer

These "ABCD" guidelines are commonly used to help you be aware of the warning signs of cancer:
A is for Asymmetry--one-half of a mole is different than the other.
B is for Border irregularity--mole has poorly defined edges.
C is for Color variations--inconsistent colors on the mole.
D is for Diameter--larger than a pencil eraser.

At any of these signs, you should see your doctor.

Will I Die If I Get Skin Cancer?

There are 3 types of skin cancer:

  • Basal cell carcinoma is the most common and it is likely that your doctor can cure it.

  • Squamous cell carcinoma, if detected early, can be cured.

  • Melanoma is the worst and could result in death. With a family history of melanoma, you could get it even if you've never been out in the sun.

A Healthy Suntan!

There's really no such thing. It may look good now, but spending too much time in the sun without sun protection and burning your skin will, at best, age your skin prematurely, and at worst, lead you down the path to skin cancer. Next time you see someone who looks fair and pale, admire her! She is caring for her skin, and she'll be healthier for it in the long run.