Sun Exposure and Cancer Risk

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: February 08, 2024

Ultraviolet (UV) rays from the sun, sunlamps, or tanning beds, can lead to skin cancer.  UV rays can also cause other skin damage like premature (early) aging, wrinkles, loss of skin elasticity, dark patches (lentigos, age spots, or liver spots), and pre-cancerous skin changes (such as dry, scaly, rough patches called actinic keratoses). The sun's UV rays also increase a person's risk of cataracts and can suppress the skin's immune system. Although dark-skinned people are less likely to develop skin cancer than light-skinned people, anyone can get skin cancer. In darker-skinned individuals, skin cancers happen more in areas not exposed to the sun (the foot, under nails, genitals).

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer. There are about 5 million skin cancers diagnosed each year in the U.S. (more than prostate, breast, lung, colon, uterus, ovaries, and pancreas cancers combined). This number has increased over the past few decades.

How can I reduce my risk?

There is a lot you can do to protect yourself from UV rays and lower your risk of developing skin cancer.

You should:

  • Avoid tanning beds and sunlamps.
  • Limit your time in the sun.
  • Practice sun safety, including using a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UVA & UVB rays every day.
  • Avoid peak sun times (10 am-4 pm) when the rays are strongest.
  • Wear protective clothing such as hats, sunglasses that block UV radiation, and long-sleeved shirts (dark fabrics are best, or clothing designed to protect you from UV rays using ultraviolet protection factor or UPF).

You should also keep in mind:

  • UV Rays can go through light clothing, windshields, windows, and clouds.
  • UV rays are reflected by sand, water, snow, ice, and pavement.

Detecting Skin Cancer Early

Detecting skin cancer early can help to stop the cancer from spreading and make treatment easier and more successful. You should look at your skin regularly so you become familiar with any moles or birthmarks. If a mole has changed in any way, including a change in size, shape, or color, has developed scaliness, bleeding, or oozing, has become itchy or painful, or you develop a sore that will not heal, you should have a healthcare provider look at the area. If you have a lot of moles, it may be helpful to make note of moles using pictures or a mole map. The American Academy of Dermatology has a helpful guide to performing a skin exam.

Learn more about the types of skin cancer on OncoLink, on the American Academy of Dermatology's SPOT Skin Cancer website, and through the Skin Cancer Foundation.

National Cancer Institute. Sunlight. 2023.

American Cancer Society. Key Statistics for Basal and Squamous Cell Skin Cancers. 2023.

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