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Basic Information on Skin Cancer 

Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States. Some people are at higher risk of skin cancer than others, but anyone can get it. The most preventable cause of skin cancer is exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light, either from the sun or from artificial sources like tanning beds. 

The two most common types of skin cancer – basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas – are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly. Melanoma, the third most common skin cancer, is more dangerous and causes the most deaths. 

Ultraviolet (UV) Light 

Ultraviolet (UV) rays are an invisible kind of radiation that comes from the sun, tanning beds, and sunlamps. UV rays can penetrate and change skin cells. 

The three types of UV rays are ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (UVC). 

UVA is the most common kind of sunlight at the earth’s surface, and reaches beyond the top layer of human skin. Scientists believe that UVA rays can damage connective tissue and increase a person’s risk of skin cancer. 

Most UVB rays are absorbed by the ozone layer, so they are less common at the earth’s surface than UVA rays. UVB rays, which help produce vitamin D in the skin, don’t reach as far into the skin as UVA rays, but they can still be damaging. 

UVC rays are very dangerous, but they are absorbed by the ozone layer and do not reach the ground. 

In addition to sunburn, too much exposure to UV rays can change the skin texture, cause the skin to age prematurely, and can lead to skin cancer. UV rays also have been linked to eye conditions such as cataracts. 

What Are The Risk Factors for Skin Cancer? 

People with certain risk factors are more likely than others to develop skin cancer. Risk factors vary for different types of skin cancer, but some general risk factors include: 

A lighter natural skin color. 

Family history of skin cancer. 

A personal history of skin cancer. 

Exposure to the sun through work and play. 

A history of sunburns, especially early in life. 

A history of indoor tanning. 

Skin that burns, freckles, reddens easily, or becomes painful in the sun. 

Blue or green eyes. 

Blonde or red hair. 

Certain types and a large number of moles. 

Tanning and Burning 

When UV rays reach the skin’s inner layer, the skins makes more melanin. Melanin is the pigment that colors the skin. It moves toward the outer layers of the skin and becomes visible as a tan. A tan does not indicate good health. A tan is a response to injury, because skin cells signal that they have been hurt by UV rays by producing more pigment. 

People burn or tan depending on their skin type, the time of year, and how long they are exposed to UV rays. The six types of skin, based on how likely it is to tan or burn, are: 

Always burns, never tans, sensitive to UV exposure. 

Burns easily, tans minimally. 

Burns moderately, tans gradually to light brown. 

Burns minimally, always tans well to moderately brown. 

Rarely burns, tans profusely to dark. 

Never burns, deeply pigmented, least sensitive. 

Although everyone’s skin can be damaged by UV exposure, people with skin types 1 and 2 are at the highest risk. 

What Are the Symptoms of Skin Cancer? 

A change in your skin is the most common sign of skin cancer. This could be a new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, or a change in a mole. Not all skin cancers look the same. 

A simple way to remember the signs of melanoma is to remember the A-B-C-D-Es of melanoma: 

“A” stands for Asymmetrical. Does the mole or spot have an irregular shape with two parts that look very different? 

“B” stands for Border. Is the border irregular or jagged? 

“C” is for Color. Is the color uneven? 

“D” is for Diameter. Is the mole or spot larger than the size of a pea? 

“E” is the Evolving. Has the mole or spot changed during the past few weeks or months? 

Talk to your doctor if you notice changes in your skin such as a new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, a change in an old growth, or any of the A-B-C-D-Es of melanoma. 

What Can I Do To Reduce My Risk Of Skin Cancer? 

Protection from ultraviolet (UV) radiation is important all year round, not just during the summer or at the beach. UV rays from the sun can reach you on cloudy and hazy days, as well as bright and sunny days. UV rays also reflect off of surfaces like water, cement, sand, and snow. Indoor tanning (using a tanning bed, booth, or sunlamp to get tan) exposes users to UV radiation. 

The hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Daylight Saving Time (9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Standard Time) are the most hazardous for UV exposure outdoors in the continental United States. UV rays from sunlight are the greatest during the late spring and early summer in North America. 

Easy options for protection from UV radiation: 

Stay in the shade, especially during midday hours. 

Wear clothing that covers your arms and legs. 

Wear a hat with a wide brim to shade your face, head, ears and neck. 

Wear sunglasses that wrap around and block both UVA and UVB rays. 

Use sunscreen with sun protection factor (SPF) 15 or higher, and both UVA and UVB protection. 

Avoid indoor tanning. 

For more information about skin cancer, or any type of cancer in general, visit the American Cancer Society’s website at www.cancer.org.