The U.S. Surgeon General: “Anyone Can Get Skin Cancer”

Millions of adults in the United States are treated for skin cancer each year—a number that is growing alarmingly. Don’t be one of them. Here’s how to protect yourself.

  • Kiley Bense

Reacting to the rise of skin cancer rates in the United States for both women and men—despite the fact that skin cancer is largely preventable—the United States surgeon general issued a call to action to prevent the disease, calling it “a major public health problem.” Skin cancer is the most commonly diagnosed type of cancer in America (nearly 5 million people are treated for it each year), and melanoma, its deadliest form, is the third most common cancer found in adolescents and young adults.

The report recommended these safeguards against the disease:

Limit your sun exposure, particularly if your skin is unprotected. This is crucial. According to the report, “as much as 90 percent of melanoma is caused by UV exposure.” Although there are hereditary factors that increase the risk of skin cancer (fair skin, light eyes or hair, sensitive skin that burns or freckles easily, or a family history of skin cancer), that risk can be minimized by reducing your time exposed to UV radiation.

Know that not even having darker skin (or a tendency not to sunburn) will protect you. You may be less susceptible to developing skin cancer than a lighter-skinned person, but you are still at risk, especially if you don’t apply sunscreen.

Skip the indoor tanning bed. The report particularly calls out Americans who use indoor tanning beds, citing studies that show that the practice leads to an increased risk of skin cancer. One study concluded that people who had used indoor tanning before turning 35 increased their risk of developing skin cancer by 59 percent, compared to people who had never used indoor tanning. Those who had used indoor tanning before they were 18 had an 85 percent higher risk. Nine states have banned indoor tanning for minors. (Spray tans are not suggested as an alternative to indoor tanning because the process can lead to inhalation of dangerous chemicals. Instead, if a bronze glow is a must-have for your summer, try a self-tanning lotion.) As for the old saw about a “base tan” protecting your skin from sun damage, the report notes that, in fact, a sunburn or tan means that you’ve damaged your skin at the cellular and DNA levels.

Don’t let fears of vitamin D deficiency be a reason to risk excessive sun exposure. Although the report acknowledges that improved sun protection “could potentially lead to reduced vitamin D deficiency,” it quotes a World Health Organization recommendation that less than 15 minutes of sun exposure two to three days a week provides enough vitamin D for most people (though this guideline varies depending on where you live, your skin type, and the time of day you go outside). The report further notes that you can also include more vitamin D-rich foods in your diet to make up for decreased sun exposure, such as fatty fish (tuna, salmon, mackerel), egg yolks, and ricotta.

Make sure you are extremely well protected from the sun. The report strongly recommends using sunscreen of at least SPF 15, applied every two hours; wearing wide-brimmed hats, long-sleeved shirts, and sunglasses; and minimizing your time in the sun when UV radiation is strongest, generally between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. For more about sunscreen, see how to choose the best one, as well as recommendations for top-notch protection.