Sunscreen and Skin Cancer


Melanoma is the most deadly form of skin cancer, and there are a number of risk factors associated with an increased risk of melanoma. Some risk factors are items over which a person has no control, but are important to be aware of because the presence of these factors should raise the concern that melanoma is a risk.

•    Increased age
•    Male gender
•    Fair skin, freckling, or high mole count (but darker skin people are still at risk)
•    Blue or green eyes
•    Blonde or red hair
•    A personal or family history of skin cancer or other skin diseases (including non-melanoma)
•    A person history of non-skin cancer
•    Certain rare genetic defects in DNA repair mechanisms

There are other risk factors over which we may have some control:

•    Exposure to sunlight or UV radiation (including indoor tanning)
•    Smoking
•    Exposure to chemicals or radiation
•    Medical treatments that impair the immune system

Considering these last risks leads to opportunities for prevention of melanoma, mainly be avoiding sun or UV exposures. First, completely avoid indoor tanning. Second, minimize time in the sun. Melanoma risk is associated with intermittent and intense sunlight exposure, including sunburns. The best way to protect yourself is to stay away!

If you are not able to stay away from the sun, there is a theory that that by blocking the UV radiation absorption by the skin you might reduce the risk of skin cancer. Blocking UV radiation can be done with a wide range of sunscreen products, including lotions, creams, protective clothing, umbrellas, sunglasses, hats, etc. But the role of sunscreens to help prevent melanoma remains controversial. Studies of the use of sunscreen are confounded by the fact that people who use sunscreen are also spending more time out in the sun, and often have underlying risks such as fair skin, so teasing out those increased risks from the possible benefit of sunscreens is tough. That said, more studies are suggesting a benefit for sunscreen.


The FDA has recently updated sunscreen information. First, UV-B rays are the wavelength associated with sunburns, and the SPF system for grading the effectiveness of sunscreens looks only that the UV-B protection. However, both UV-A and UV-B wavelengths have been shown to cause melanoma. To be sure a sunscreen blocks both UV-A and UV-B, with the label “BROAD SPECTRUM” such as the LIVESTRONG thinksport sunscreen. Second, sunscreens with an SPF factor of 2-14 must come with a warning label that the product has only been shown to prevent sunburn, not skin cancer or early aging. So use SPF 15 or higher. Lastly, sunscreens may be water resistant, but the FDA no longer allows claims like “waterproof” or “sweatproof.” So check the label carefully.


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