Protecting Your Skin from the Sun

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In any given year, an estimated 80,000 cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in Canada. By the end of 2022, it is estimated that 9,000 Canadians will be diagnosed with skin cancer; while an estimated 1,200 will die from it. (Click here for more skin cancer statistics from the Canadian Cancer Society.) Now that summer is here, it’s especially important for the public to be educated on the risks associated with exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays.

There are four different types of skin cancer that you can be diagnosed with:

• Actinic Keratosis (AK)
• Basal Cell Carcinoma (BCC)
• Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC)
• Malignant Melanoma

Actinic Keratosis is caused by chronic exposure to ultraviolet radiation, such as sunlight. Areas of the body most commonly affected by AK include the scalp, face, neck, shoulders, arms, hands and back. AK is more common in adults over the age of 45 as well as those who are fair skinned or have light hair, freckles, and burn easily. You are also more likely to develop AK if you’ve had frequent exposure to sun throughout your early life. Some health researchers also suggest that Actinic keratosis is an early form of Squamous cell carcinoma, which is why it’s so crucial to seek treatment as early as possible. Those with AK will often notice scaly, plaque-like patches that are approximately 1 to 3 mm in diameter and they may range in colour from brown to red.

Basal Cell Carcinoma is considered to be the most common form of skin cancer as it accounts for 90% of cases that are diagnosed. It begins at the outer layer of skin, also known as the epidermis, and is caused by frequent/long-term exposure to sunlight or artificial ultraviolet light, such as tanning beds. Common areas of the body affected by BCC include the scalp, face, ears, neck, back and shoulders. Other contributing factors include genetics, vaccinations, and even tattoos. While Basal Cell Carcinoma generally affects individuals over the age of 40, anyone can be diagnosed. You’re also at a higher risk of developing BCC if you are on long-term immunosuppressive drugs or have a suppressed immune system due to illness. One of the most common, earliest signs of Basal Cell Carcinoma are non-healing sores – particularly if they bleed or ooze for three weeks or more. The sores may be painful or itch, while other times may give the patient no discomfort. Skin lesions that appear shiny or bumpy are also indicators of BCC.

Squamous Cell Carcinoma is the second most common form of skin cancer after Basal Cell Carcinoma. It also occurs after overexposure to sunlight – either from the sun’s UV rays or tanning beds, but can also develop as a result of burns, scars, sores, as well as exposure to certain chemicals. Chronic skin inflammation and other medical conditions known to suppress the immune system can also encourage the development of Squamous Cell Carcinoma. Like other forms of skin cancer, SCC also occurs on areas of the body that have experienced prolonged exposure to ultraviolet rays. Telltale signs of sun damage include wrinkling of the skin, pigment changes, and loss of elasticity. If you develop wart-like growths, growths that get larger over time, persistent scaly red patches, or have open sores, these could all be warning signs of Squamous Cell Carcinoma.

Malignant Melanoma is considered the most serious form of skin cancer, as well as the most deadly. It causes more than 900 deaths in Canada each year. However, the good news is that with early detection, it can be cured. In order to determine the presence of Malignant Melanoma, you need to know the warning signs. It can start as what appears to be a new mole or freckles on the outer surface of the skin. Malignant Melanoma can also cause pre-existing moles or spots on the skin to change in appearance – such as shape or colour. Malignant Melanoma can develop over weeks or months, or can be a more slow-growing cancer over several years.

As mentioned, in order to prevent skin cancer, the first thing you should do is take precautions to keep your skin protected from ultraviolet rays. While you might not think a little bit of exposure to ultraviolet rays is dangerous, it may actually be more harmful than one realizes. If you’re going to be exposed to sunlight, I suggest using an SPF 15 or 30. An SPF 15 sunscreen will block as much as 93% of UVB radiation, while an SPF 30 blocks as much as 97%. The higher the SPF, the better protected your skin will be. It’s also important to avoid use of tanning beds, as even the UV exposure from tanning beds can do serious damage to not just the skin, but to the eyes as well. Along with wearing sunscreen, you should also keep your scalp protected by wearing large-brimmed hats, and keep your eyes protected by wearing sunglasses. If you notice any abnormalities with your skin, you should always report those changes to your family doctor or dermatologist right away.