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7 surprising skin cancer facts

Skin cancer is one of the most common – yet preventable – forms of cancer in our country. You may wear sunscreen at the beach or lake, but there is more you can and should do to protect yourself. G. Anthony Slagel, D.O., a dermatologist, explains why skin cancer is a public health concern and how you can stay safe while enjoying the sun.

1. Skin cancer is frighteningly common.

The American Academy of Dermatology reports that one in five Americans will be diagnosed with skin cancer during their lifetime. “It is projected that in the year 2013, more than 2 million people will be diagnosed with a type of skin cancer,” says Dr. Slagel. Statistically speaking, that means there will be more new cases of skin cancer than the combined total number of breast, prostate, colon and lung cancer cases this year.

2. It won’t go away on its own.

Once skin cancer forms, it will continue to grow and depending on the type, can spread to other parts of the body. The most common skin cancers, basal cell and squamous, are locally invasive, meaning that they affect tissue near the cancer. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, can metastasize and invade other parts of the body.

3. Excessive exposure and tanning beds are dangerous.

The good news is that 15 to 20 minutes of sunlight each day is considered beneficial because sunlight helps the body produce vitamin D. However, exposure in excess of 20 minutes or in a tanning bed can pose a health treat and increase your chances of developing skin cancer.

4. You need sunscreen every day, even when it’s cloudy.

“Everyone living here in the Southeast should use a minimum of an SPF 30, up to an SPF 50,” Dr. Slagel explains. “Sunscreen should be reapplied at a minimum every two hours.” The Food and Drug Administration now restricts sunscreen makers from claiming their products have SPF above 50. While these new regulations take effect this summer, some products currently on the shelves may still have these higher SPF labels. Remember to apply sunscreen at least 20 minutes before heading outdoors.

5. A bottle of sunscreen shouldn’t last you all summer.

“A lot of people don’t realize this, but to properly [apply] sunscreen over an average-sized adult, it takes about one ounce or two tablespoons,” he says. “If your bottle is only six ounces, that’s only six applications. It’s not going to last you all summer.”

6. Sunscreen labeling isn’t always accurate.

“The labeling that says all-day protection is not accurate,” cautions Dr. Slagel. This labeling will soon be eliminated by the FDA.

Instead, look for sunscreen labeled “broad spectrum,” which will protect you against both UVA rays and UVB rays. New regulations also say sunscreen bottles can no longer be marketed as waterproof; they can now only read “water resistant.” Data has been slowly accumulating to suggest that sunscreens do indeed protect against skin cancer and now sunscreen makers are allowed to make that claim.

7. Sunscreen isn’t enough.

In addition to sunscreen, Dr. Slagel tells his patients to take precautions when they will be in the sun for an extended period of time. “We tell our patients when they’re on their way to the beach, take a big floppy hat to protect your face, stay in the shade or under an umbrella as much as you can, reapply your sunscreen every two hours and avoid the midday sun from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.”

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