Reduce Your Risks


Q.  Are there other risk factors for melanoma than UV exposure and fair skin?

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells and can cause skin cancer and premature skin aging. Exposure to UV rays from the sun or tanning beds is the most preventable risk factor for melanoma. UVA rays are the most abundant source of solar radiation at the earth's surface and penetrate beyond the top layer of skin. Scientists believe that UVA rays can increase a person's risk for developing skin cancer. UVB rays are less abundant at the earth's surface and penetrate less deeply into the skin but can also be damaging and are primarily responsible for causing sunburn. It is important to wear a broad spectrum sunscreen that protects against both UVA and UVB radiation. The current SPF scoring system primarily refers to degree of protection against UVB radiation, and scientists at the FDA are working to develop and implement a system to measure UVA protection.


Q.  How does sunscreen work?

Most sun protection products work by absorbing, reflecting, or scattering the sun's rays. These products contain chemicals that interact with the skin to protect it from UV rays. Broad-spectrum sunscreens protect against UVA and UVB rays, the two main components of the sun's rays. UVA and UVB rays damage the skin in different ways, but both can lead to the development of skin cancer. It is important to note that UV exposure increases the risk of skin cancer, premature skin aging, and other sun damage, so it is also important to limit time in the sun (especially in the mid-day when UV exposure is greatest), and to wear protective clothing.


Q.  What should I look for in a sunscreen?

Protect yourself daily using a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen (protects against UVA and UVB rays) with SPF of at least 30.


Q.  I've heard some people say you should wear sunscreen year round, is that true?

Yes. UV radiation can still damage skin in the winter, even though the sun is not as strong. The sun's rays can penetrate clouds, haze, and smoke, so sunscreen should be used even on cloudy days.


Q.  Why is it important to reapply sunscreen frequently? 

There are three reasons why sunscreens should be reapplied frequently. First, sunscreens can be physically rubbed off, such as when drying yourself with a towel. Second, sunscreens can be washed off when swimming or with heavy sweating. Third, some of the active ingredients in sunscreens start to break down over time. This break down can be accelerated by sun exposure. These three factors can prevent sunscreens from providing the level of protection indicated by the SPF value. Generously apply sunscreen 15-30 minutes before going outdoors and reapply at least every two hours, or after swimming or perspiring heavily.


Q.  I am concerned about getting enough Vitamin D, and I've heard that I need to spend time in the sun or use tanning beds. Is this true?

Vitamin D has received a lot of attention in recent years, and many physicians are talking with their patients about Vitamin D deficiency. New guidelines for how much Vitamin D people need to stay healthy were released in November 2010 from the Institute of Medicine. Vitamin D is a fat-soluble hormone that regulates the absorption and metabolism of calcium and phosphorous, helping to form and maintain strong bones. Vitamin D is active throughout the body, and ongoing research is investigating its role in health and disease.

Vitamin D is naturally present in very few foods, added to others (fortified foods), and available as dietary supplements. It is also produced in the body when ultraviolet (UV) rays contact the skin and trigger vitamin D synthesis, which is why some people have concluded that they need more UV exposure to get enough Vitamin D. However, exposure to UV rays is a major risk factor for melanoma and other skin cancers. UV rays (from the sun or tanning beds) penetrate the skin, damaging the skin and causing genetic mutations that can lead to cancer.

MRA encourages individuals to beware of the dangers of UV exposure and advises that people do not need to put themselves at risk of melanoma and other skin cancers to get vitamin D. If you and your doctor decide you are not getting enough Vitamin D, oral supplements offer a safe alternative source of vitamin D without carcinogenic risk.


Q.  Are tanning beds a safe alternative to being in the sun?


No, tanning beds are just as damaging as the sun because they emit similar ultraviolet radiation that can cause the same type of sunburn and mutations in the skin. The World Health Organization has classified indoor tanning devices as cancer-causing agents. Research shows that those who use indoor tanning devices have up to a 75% increased risk of melanoma. The risk increases with greater years of use, number of sessions or total hours of use. The federal government is considering regulating access to tanning parlors by minors because of the health problems they pose, which is a step that some states and localities have already taken.


Q.  I'm going on vacation and don't want to get a sunburn. Shouldn't I use a tanning bed to get a "base tan" to protect my skin?

Many people think that a "base tan" protects their skin from a damaging burn. The truth is that a tan is really a sign of skin damage. Using a tanning bed just exposes your skin to a greater amount of UV radiation and increases your risk of developing skin cancer. The best way to protect your skin while out in the sun is the use sunscreen, wear protective clothing, and avoid the sun during in the mid-day.


Q.  I used to tan quite a bit as a teenager but never had a sunburn. Should I be worried? Do I now have an increased risk for melanoma?

Most people associate sunburn with skin damage, but even developing a moderate tan can increase your risk for skin cancer. A tan develops when the skin tries to protect itself from exposure to UV rays. This UV radiation from a tanning bed or the sun causes damage to your skin even if no immediate signs of damage are seen. Skin aging and cancer are often delayed effects that show up many years after exposure. You may have an increased risk of developing skin cancer, but you can significantly address the risk by paying attention to changes in your skin and limiting any future exposure to UV radiation.


Q.  Who is most at risk for melanoma?

While some people are more susceptible to melanoma, everyone, no matter what color skin, is at risk. Individuals who have fair skin, moles or freckles, sunburn easily, or have a family history of skin cancer have a higher risk for melanoma. Spending excessive amounts of time in the sun or living in sunny or high-altitude climates also increases your risk. No matter your skin type or geographic location, you should wear sunscreen, limit sun exposure, and pay attention to changes in your skin.