Sitting out in the sun isn’t the only cause of skin cancer. From the genes you’re born with to daily routines, you may be more at risk than you realize.
By Alana Blumenstein
When it comes to skin cancer, one of the most dangerous things you can do is assume you won’t be affected. In truth, your chances are higher than you might think. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 1 in 5 Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.
“Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer, period,” says Dr. Molly Powers, a dermatologist at Henry Ford Hospital. “There are more people diagnosed with skin cancer every year than any other cancer.” In fact, the AAD reports that approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed every day. Although often found in middle-aged to older adults, skin cancer can be seen “at any age and in any skin type,” Powers adds. “I have had several patients in their early 20s with skin cancer.”
With the rates already so high, the last thing you want to do is increase your risk. SEEN talked to experts to uncover surprising things that may be doing just that. Here are 10 things that could be putting you at risk:
1. Your complexion: Believe it or not, people with fair skin aren’t the only ones in danger. All skin types can be damaged by UVA and UVB rays. “It is the constant low dose radiation that can cause skin cancer, wrinkles and early aging of the skin,” Powers says. Other risk factors include freckled skin, an inability to tan and even having light-colored eyes and hair. People with blue, green, or gray eyes and/or blond or red hair are less protected from UV radiation.
2. Cumulative sun exposure: “People who have large lifetime exposures to sun through activities or work have higher risks of skin cancer,” says Dr. Karen Chapel, a dermatologist in Dearborn. Activities that put people most at risk include golfing, boating and gardening, as well as other hobbies that involve spending time in the sun.
3. Where you live: Along with a warmer climate or higher altitude comes more exposure to harmful radiation. For those traveling this summer, be cautious in places with high altitudes where the sun is strongest, like Colorado or Utah.
4. Family history: It’s not just about the amount of time you spend in the sun. Your genes can also increase your chances. If you have a family history of skin cancer, your risk is automatically higher. “People with a parent or sibling with melanoma have a two- to tenfold increased risk of developing melanoma,” Chapel adds.
5. Driving frequently: When you’re in your car, your skin isn’t protected by the window. “Windows filter out ultraviolet B rays but let in ultraviolet A rays,” Chapel explains. “Both types can damage the DNA of the skin in ways that trigger skin cancer.” We all still need to be cautious of the sun when driving. “Interestingly, truck drivers and other drivers have a higher risk of skin cancers on their left side of face and left arm,” Powers adds. “That is the side of the body frequently exposed to the sun when driving.”
6. Bad sunburns: Any history of sunburns or using a tanning bed use can put you at risk. “Even one blistering sunburn during childhood or adolescence can nearly double a person’s chance of developing melanoma,” the AAD website states. Chapel adds that “periods of intense sun with periodic sunburns are linked with a higher risk of melanoma.”
7. Overexposure to radiation: Though it’s common to use X-rays for medical reasons, it’s best to limit your exposure unless needed. Overexposure to ionizing radiation increases your risk, Powers explains. But don’t worry too much about hospital tests. “Most X-rays, CT scans and even radiation for cancers pose fairly minimal risk,” Chapel says.
8. Indoor tanning: According to the AAD, women under 30 who use tanning beds are six times more likely to develop melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer. “This is a huge risk factor that, unlike many of the others, is completely avoidable,” Chapel emphasizes. “Indoor tanning was originally sold as a safe way of tanning but has been proven to damage the skin’s genetic code and initiate skin cancer.”
9. Weak immune system: A weakened immune system is another risk factor. “People on medications to suppress their immune systems, such as people who have undergone organ transplants and people with certain blood cancers like leukemia can have a higher risk of skin cancer,” Chapel says.
10. Atypical moles: An atypical mole increases your risk for developing melanoma, as it has the potential to become cancerous. People with more than 50 moles or moles bigger than 6 millimeters and irregular in shape and color have higher risks of melanoma, Chapel says. Make sure to keep track of the moles on your body and be aware if any new ones appear.
Now that you’re aware of the risks, the next step is prevention. “The most important thing to do to reduce risks is to be smart about your sun exposure,” Powers says. “I recommend wearing SPF 30 on the face, neck and backs of the hands every day.” Basically, if an area is exposed, it should be covered — even while going about your daily life. “Do your best to protect your skin at all times,” Powers stresses.
For times you are in direct sunlight, Powers suggests applying at least SPF 50 every two hours. “The shade or a hat without sunscreen is not enough to protect yourself from UV damage,” she says. “There is excellent sun protective clothing available as well that makes protecting yourself from the sun relatively easy. Also, don’t forget your sunglasses — they are not just for style, but also for UV protection of your eyes.”
Protection doesn’t have to interfere with your daily life. “There is no need to completely avoid the sun and not live your life, but just be cautious about your exposure to the sun,” Powers says. “We are lucky to have many methods with which to protect ourselves. Have fun outside and be smart!”