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by Elaine K Howley

July 20, 2020

Life has moved outside during the coronavirus pandemic; here’s how to stay safe from the sun

You may have transitioned to swimming outdoors this year in response to indoor pools being closed or limiting capacity to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus. If you’ve found a safe place to swim outside, that’s great.

However, in the urgency to protect yourself from the viral pandemic, you may be overlooking another potential health danger: skin cancer.

When you’re outside, you’re exposed to ultraviolet light from the sun. This light encourages plants to grow and helps you generate vitamin D. But ultraviolet light is a form of radiation, and exposure to too much of it can cause genetic mutations in skin cells that may give rise to cancer.

Skin is the largest organ of the body, and as such, you have billions and billions of skin cells. A mutation in any one of them could potentially spell trouble. This volume aspect means that, according to the American Cancer Society, “skin cancer is by far the most common type of cancer.”

Types of Skin Cancers

Not all skin cancers are created equal, and the good news is the two most common types of skin cancer are the most easily treated. In all, there are two primary types of skin cancer: melanoma and nonmelanoma.

  • Nonmelanoma skin cancers. There are two types of nonmelanoma skin cancers called basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These cancers develop in either the basal cells (the top layer of the skin) or in squamous cells (deeper in the epidermis). The most common kinds of skin cancer, basal and squamous cell carcinomas usually develop in regions of the body that are exposed to light frequently, such as the face, hands, arms, and neck. They can occur anywhere, though. The ACS estimates that about 5.4 million basal and squamous cell carcinomas are diagnosed each year, with basal cell carcinomas accounting for about eight in 10 of those. Though squamous cell carcinoma is more likely to spread, both of these cancers are usually easily treated and curable. Rarely do they become deadly.
  • Melanoma. A more aggressive form of skin cancer, melanoma forms in melanocytes, the skin cells that manufacture melanin, the pigment that gives skin its tan or brown color. It’s relatively rare, accounting for about 1 percent of all skin cancers. However, incidence is on the rise. The ACS estimates that in 2020, about 100,350 new melanomas will be diagnosed and about 6,850 people are expected to die of the disease. Melanoma rates doubled from 1982 to 2011 and are continuing to rise.

There are a few other types of skin cancers, but they are very rare.

Reducing the Chances

With all of these types of skin cancer, exposure to UV radiation can increase your risk of experiencing a cellular mutation that could give rise to the proliferation of cancer. But there are some things you can do to help mitigate your chances of developing skin cancer.

  • Use sunblock daily. Even on cloudy or overcast days, UV rays still filter through and can cause skin damage that not only could lead to cancer but can also age your skin faster. But you can protect your skin by applying a broad-spectrum sunblock with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. And don’t skimp on the sunblock. Apply a full ounce to the skin each time and reapply frequently, especially after you’ve been in the water.
  • Cover up. A sun hat and sunglasses are a must if you’ll be spending time outside, particularly if you’re on or near water as that can reflect and intensify the sun’s rays. While swimming, consider wearing a long-sleeved swim shirt or long-legged swim tights to help protect your skin. Look for fabrics that have an ultraviolet protection factor, or UPF rating, of 50. If you can, seek shade under an umbrella or trees.
  • Limit your time outdoors. Getting outside for some fresh air, sunlight, and exercise can help you stay healthier, but you should try to limit your time in the sun, especially during the peak sunlight hours between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m.
  • Visit a dermatologist annually. Your dermatologist is an expert in spotting and treating skin cancers. Everyone should visit one annually for a full skin check and that goes double for swimmers who spend a lot of time outdoors in skimpy outfits with a lot of skin exposed. Some skin cancers can look completely harmless, so it helps to have a trained eye looking out for you.
  • Avoid sunburns. One of the biggest risk factors for developing skin cancer is a history of sunburn. Even a single sunburn during childhood can predispose you to developing skin cancer later in life. Be a responsible enjoyer of sunlight and take common sense steps to limit your chances of burning.
  • Don’t forget your eyes. Yes, UV rays can damage your eyes, potentially causing cancer in the eye itself as well as the delicate surrounding skin. The ACS recommends wearing wrap-around sunglasses with 99 percent to 100 percent UVA and UVB absorption, which offer the best protection for the eyes and surrounding skin.

Know Your ABC(DE)s

In addition to taking care to limit your exposure to UV radiation, you should also get to know your own skin and check it often. Skin cancer often shows up initially as a change in the appearance of the skin in a certain area, whether that’s the development of a red spot, a dark mole, a lump, or a bruise that doesn’t seem to go away.

One simple way to remember what to look for is to know your ABC(DE)s and bring any new skin symptoms to the attention of your doctor right away.

  • A: Asymmetrical. If a mole or spot is irregular or seems asymmetrical, bring it to your doctor’s attention.
  • B: Border. If the border of a mole or darker spot on the skin is jagged or irregular, that can be a sign of skin cancer.
  • C: Color. If a mole or spot darker has variable colors within it, that can also signify a problem and needs to be checked out.
  • D: Diameter. The larger a spot or mole is, the more likely it could be cancerous. Spots that are pea-sized or larger need to be checked.
  • E: Evolving. If a mole or spot on your skin had changed recently, be sure to tell your doctor.


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