Living on the Southern shoreline has its advantages, but also comes with the risk of being exposed to dangerous UV rays, resulting in sun damage that is producing higher incidences of skin cancer, also known as melanoma, each year. According to the Melanoma Research Alliances, cases of melanoma have tripled in the past 30 years at a time when cancer rates for other common cancers have declined.
But now, according to data just released by the American Association for Cancer Research, the onset of skin cancer can be cut by a whopping 80 percent simply by applying a SPF 30 (sun protection factor 30) sunscreen prior to sun exposure. The research is also being used to identify new, more effective melanoma-preventing agents.
It was well known that sunscreens prevent sunburns by creating a barrier from the UV sunlight, which is a major risk factor for melanoma. But this is the first time that researchers could present a clear connection between sunscreen and the prevention of melanoma, mainly because these are generally manufactured as cosmetics and tested in human volunteers or synthetic skin models.
The researchers at The Ohio State University have now found a way to test the effects of sunscreen on mice. The mouse model allowed the group to test the ability of a sunscreen to not only prevent burns but also to prevent melanoma, which was a remarkable accomplishment. This model could lead to breakthroughs in melanoma prevention.
In the study, melanomas appeared more rapidly and with more tumors when mice were exposed to a single dose of UVB light a day after researchers applied 4OHT (the chemical 4-hydroxytamoxifen) to the skin. Their chance of surviving without contracting melanoma was reduced by 80 percent, to about five weeks, according to the researchers. But when researchers tested the ability of numerous SPF 30 sunscreens to prevent melanoma, they found that they all delayed melanoma onset and reduced tumor incidence.
According to the American Cancer Society, melanoma is the most dangerous type of skin cancer and the leading cause of death from skin disease. An estimated 76,000 people will be diagnosed with melanoma in 2016, and more than 10,000 will die. The disease is 20 times more common in white people than black people, but no group is immune. The risk increases with age but skin cancer is also one of the most common cancers in young adults, especially women.
Abstinence from the sun is often not practical or desirable, but everyone should apply sunscreen before and while in the sun. There are common sun protection misconceptions. In observance of Melanoma Awareness Month this month, here are some facts:
1) Sunscreen is necessary on overcast days. Although clouds block some of the sun’s skin-damaging ultraviolet radiation, up to 80 percent still reaches the Earth’s surface.
2) It’s all about SPF. Not all sunscreen formulations have the same “sun protection factor” and some with higher SPF values offer misleading assurances. Make note of how long the UV protection lasts and reapply frequently, especially after swimming and exercise.
3) While fair-skinned people are more prone to burning than others, anyone can develop melanoma. Though skin cancer rates in African Americans and Latino people are lower than other groups, their survival outcomes are poorer, partially because more aggressive skin cancers disproportionately strike them.
4) Sunscreens expire because their ingredients lose their power over time. Check the expiration date and replace your sunscreen if it is out-of-date.
5) The Federal Drug Administration regulates all sun block products sold in the U.S. The chemicals in the sunscreen are not toxic.
When caught early, melanoma is highly curable but survival rates for late-stage skin cancer are still low. That’s why taking steps to prevent melanoma and identify it early are key. Know your skin and examine it regularly, being watchful for the ABCDEs of Melanoma. Pay attention to moles or growths that are asymmetrical, have an irregular border, exhibit changes in color, have a diameter larger than the size of a pencil eraser, or have evolved in size or thickness. If you notice one or more of these signs, see your healthcare provider.
Dr. Corinne Howington, of Low Country Dermatology, is a board certified dermatologist, with expertise in medical, surgical and cosmetic dermatology.