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Why Sunscreen is a Literal Lifesaver

By: Sia Minhas, Contributing Writer

Imagine this, a sunny day at the beach. Prepared to get your tan on as you lay in the warm sand on a comfortable beach towel, the waves crashing by you practically lulling you to a peaceful slumber until a looming figure clouds the sun. “Put on some sunscreen,” says Mom. It’s a universal experience and a simple one at that. Putting on sunscreen meant avoiding getting burnt and the long-lasting wince-inducing pain that is sunburn. However, sunscreen is actually more important than what we see on the surface, literally. Sunscreen can actually protect us from life-threatening skin conditions like skin cancer (Melanoma, Basal cell carcinoma, and Squamous cell carcinoma for example). There are many ways to reduce the risk of skin cancer, and sunscreen is one of them.

How Does the Sun Cause Skin Cancer?

Skin cancer is multifactorial. This means there isn’t a single/direct cause of skin cancer. There are actually a multitude of different factors that can cause skin cancer and UV exposure is one of them. The sun emits ultraviolet rays (UV rays) which can sometimes be beneficial for our health like in the production of Vitamin D. However when someone is overexposed to UV rays, it heightens the risk of skin cancer. In fact, the Worldwide Cancer Research organization sites, “Over 80% of skin cancers are caused by overexposure to UV radiation,” in their article on the causes of skin cancer. Skin cancer is caused by harmful mutations to the DNA in our skin cells and overexposure to UV rays causes these harmful mutations.

Risk Factors

As aforementioned, skin cancer is multifactorial. Here are some of those factors:

If you’ve had a sunburn before, you’re at more likely risk of getting skin cancer. Since sunburn is due to overexposure to the sun and UV rays, the DNA in your skin cells is mutating and that can lead to skin cancers like melanomas.

If you have a weakened immune system, you’re more susceptible to skin cancer. An example would be those with HIV/AIDS. A common myth is that people with darker skin tones do not need sunscreen but that is far from the truth.

Although, if your skin is fair, you’re more at risk of skin cancer because there is not as much protection from the sun. Other characteristics that put someone at more risk of skin cancers are red or blonde hair and light-colored eyes. This does not mean that those with darker skin tones/hair/eyes are immune from skin cancer; it just means they have more protection but still susceptible.

How To Lessen The Risks of Skin Cancer

There are many tips to lessen the risks of skin cancer. The first is quite obvious: avoid being exposed to the sun for too long. Overexposure is a major risk and can cause multiple health issues like heat stroke, sun poisoning, eye damage, dehydration, and more. It is important to limit the amount of sunlight you are exposed to and taking preventative measures for skin cancer. The Mayo Clinic sites in their article on skin cancer, “For many people in North America, the sun's rays are strongest between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.” It is best to avoid being outdoors around this time/limiting the amount of time you are outside during these hours to keep you safe from when the sun's rays are strongest. It is also important to wear sunscreen year-round. Many people think we only need sunscreen during beach trips to prevent sunburn. However, that isn’t the case; we are exposed to the sun 24/7 regardless of cloudy weather or days when it may be cold. The Skin Cancer Foundation sites in their article, “Regular daily use of SPF 15 sunscreen can reduce your risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) by about 40 percent, and lower your melanoma risk by 50 percent.” That is a significant decrease in the risk of developing skin cancer over time when one uses sunscreen routinely and year-round. Next time someone offers you sunscreen, take them up on it. It may just save your life.

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