Nancy Thomas, MD, PhD, Co-Director of UNC’s Interdisciplinary Melanoma Program, talks about sun safety and early detection of skin cancer

Who is at risk for skin cancer?

Everyone is at risk – not just people with light skin.  People with many moles, fair skin, skin that burns easily or freckles need to be particularly aware of their risk. Blond, red, or light brown hair and blue, gray or green eyes or a family history of skin cancer also indicated increased risk. It is best to avoid excessive exposure to the sun and avoid exposure to other sources of ultraviolet radiation.

What do you mean by sources of ultraviolet radiation?

Ultraviolet rays are a part of sunlight that is an invisible form of radiation. UV rays can penetrate and change the structure of skin cells. There are two types of UV rays:  UVB and UVA. UVB rays can damage DNA in the cells of the skin, which can result in skin cancer.  UVA radiation penetrates more deeply into the skin, and some studies suggest that it can cause damage to connective tissue and increase a person’s risk for developing skin cancer.

Where are people exposed to UV rays?

In addition to the sun, many people have exposure to ultraviolet light from tanning beds, lamps and booths.

This is a really important issue because there is a misconception that tanning salons offer a safe alternative to the sun or a safer way to get a base tan.  The truth is that tanning beds don't offer a safe alternative to natural sunlight. Exposure to ultraviolet radiation damages your skin, increasing the risk of skin cancer and premature skin aging, no matter where the exposure comes from. In fact, most tanning beds emit mainly UVA rays — which may increase the risk of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

A ‘base tan’ does not offer protection from harmful rays.  If you want a ‘tan’ without exposure to damaging UV radiation, consider using a sunless tanning product. Avoid tanning beds, and use a broad-spectrum sunscreen whenever you're outdoors.

What should you to do protect yourself?

There are five things everyone should remember:

  1. Avoid excessive sun exposure year round. UV rays can cause skin damage during any season or temperature, and even on cloudy or hazy days.
  2. When possible, stay out of the sun during the middle of the day (10 a.m. – 4 p.m.), when UV rays are the strongest.  Avoid tanning beds, bulbs or lamps.
  3. Cover up. Wear protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, long-sleeved shirt and long pants. Protect your eyes with wraparound sunglasses that filter out 100 percent of UV rays.
  4. Always use a broad-spectrum (protection against both UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen and lip balm/protectant with at least sun protection factor (SPF) of 15. Apply liberally and reapply as indicated by the manufacturer’s directions.
  5. Check your skin! You may be doing a great job of following the guidelines above. Nevertheless, do a thorough examination of your skin once a month, top and bottom, front and back. If you see spots, blemishes or moles that are new or changing, ask for some advice from a medical professional.

Listen to WCHL interviewIcon indicating that a link will open an external site. with David Ollila, MD,  Co-Director of UNC’s Interdisciplinary Melanoma Program, about ways to stay safe in the sun.