Skin Safety 101

More than 1 million people in the U.S. will be diagnosed with non-malignant skin cancer this year and another 60,000 will get malignant melanoma.

Many common sunscreens do little to protect users from the most harmful effects of sunlight caused by ultraviolet (UV) radiation.

Approximately 5% of the solar light reaching the Earth is UV rays. The vast majority of this light is in the form of skin-penetrating UVA radiation. UVB, the fraction that causes sunburn, makes up just 4% of this UV light, while another variation, UVC, is filtered out by the atmosphere.

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consequences of Continuous Skin Damage

Ultraviolet Rays and Our Skin

UV light can break the chemical bonds of epidermal cells; including DNA, enzymes, and proteins. This kills cells directly, causes cancerous cell growth, inhibits the body's anti-cancer defenses and does other damage to skin cells.

For years the sunscreen industry has focused primarily on UVB, the light that causes the most immediate skin damage, inflicting sunburn as well as increasing skin cancer risk. The SPF test is designed to measure the UVB protection of a sunscreen.

UVA, however, penetrates deeper into the epidermal layer than UVB, reaching the fragile subcutaneous tissue, and creates harmful free radicals when it interacts with certain chemicals in the skin. UVA-induced stress leads to immune suppression of epidermis.

Naturally occurring chemicals such as vitamin B2 have been linked to tumor formation after interacting with UVA. UVA also sensitizes skin for people taking antibiotics, hormonal contraceptives and other pharmaceuticals.

UVA damage occurs before any visible sunburn and is increasingly being recognized as the major contributor to UV-related skin damage and aging. This shift in our understanding of UV-related skin damage brings to light the pressing problem with many sunscreens: they effectively shield skin from UVB rays, but leave users vulnerable to UVA damage.

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consequences of Continuous Skin Damage

Identifying Basal Cell Carcinoma

Skin cancer rates have climbed in the U.S. at roughly 3% a year since 1981. The three main types are basal-cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous-cell carcinoma (SCC), and malignant melanoma.

Basal-cell carcinoma is usually found in areas of the skin exposed to sunlight, and typically appears as a raised, hard, red or red-grey, pearly wound, often found on the forehead, eyelids, cheeks, nose, and lips.

Squamous-cell carcinoma occurs most frequently on skin exposed to sunlight over long periods of time, and usually develops in areas where skin has been damaged by the sun such as areas with blemishes or freckles. These blemishes developed into very rough and scaly patches with minor areas of open wound that do not heal.

They eventually grow into larger wounds with crusts. BCC and SCC are localized and unlikely to spread. They are the most common forms of skin cancer.

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Beware of Malignant Melanomas

Malignant melanoma is more rare and potentially deadly. It often shows itself as a spot that begins to grow, bleed, or change its color, shape or texture. It usually spreads if not treated in the early stage. Malignant melanomas are responsible for 75% of epidermal cancer deaths and are the sixth most common cancer in American men and women.

The most common places to develop skin cancer are those exposed to the most sun: the face, arms, neck, legs, and hands. Risk factors for skin cancer include sunburn or excessive sun damage, especially early in life.

Review of nearly 30 studies indicates that just a few severe sunburns during childhood or adolescence can double the likelihood of developing malignant melanoma later in life. Other risk factors include freckles, light skin color, eye color, or hair color, personal or family history of epidermal cancer, and the presence of certain types of moles.

The influence of UVA on epidermal cancer is still being studied. There is some evidence that UVA contributes to basal cell carcinoma and concerns that it may related to melanoma as well.

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Minimizing Chances of Squamous Carcinoma

The role of sunscreen: Controlled studies comparing sunscreen users with non-users indicate that sunscreen can reduce the risk of squamous-cell carcinoma, a common form of skin cancer. There is little substantial evidence, however, that sunscreen reduces the risk of the other common types of skin cancer, basal-cell carcinoma and melanoma.

One study did find a reduced frequency of mutations in the p53 tumor suppressor gene among basal-cell carcinoma patients who regularly used sunscreen. Mutations in the p53 gene cause up to 80% of skin cancer cases; therefore this study suggests that sunscreen reduces sun-induced basal-cell carcinoma, while potentially leaving only individuals with genetic susceptibility to the disease's other pathways vulnerable.