by Brittany Sands, CRNP, Chestnut Hill Hospital

Summer is here, and it may be tempting to park yourself in a lawn chair or tanning bed to get that sun-kissed glow. Unfortunately, if you don’t properly protect your skin, you will pay for it later with wrinkled, splotchy skin – or possibly with your life.

A tan – once considered a sign of vitality and good health – is actually the skin cell’s response to damage from the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays. Repeated exposure to the sun and cumulative sunburns not only contributes to premature skin aging – it can also lead to skin cancer.

Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States, with more than 3.5 million cases diagnosed annually – more than breast, prostate, lung and colon cancer combined, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.

And skin cancer is on the rise, with the largest increases seen among white people and women ages 18 to 39. A recent study found that during the past 40 years, the rates of melanoma – the deadliest form of skin cancer – grew by 800 percent among women 18 to 39 and 400 percent among men.

Sunburn can happen whether you’re indoors or outside. Health experts attribute this rise to the popularity of indoor tanning. People who use indoor tanning equipment are 74 percent more likely to develop melanoma than those who have never used a tanning bed.

Two types of UV radiation are in both the sun’s rays and artificial tanning equipment: UVB is the chief culprit behind sunburn, while UVA rays, which penetrate the skin more deeply, are associated with wrinkling and premature aging. UVA rays also increase the cancerous properties of UVB rays, and can cause skin cancer, as well.

Types of skin cancer

Skin cancer starts as an abnormality in the skin’s inner or outer layers, resulting from sunburn, a mole, or an irregular growth. Skin cancers fall into three types:

Basal cell carcinoma (BCC) is abnormal growths or lesions that develop on the outermost layer of the skin. BCCs often look like open sores, red patches, pink growths, shiny bumps or scars.

Squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) is uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in the upper layers of the skin and look like scaly red patches, open sores, elevated growths, or warts; they may crust or bleed. SCC is mainly caused by UV exposure over the course of one’s lifetime.

Melanoma, the most dangerous form, develops from UV radiation damage to skin cells which cause cell mutation and malignant tumor growth. Melanomas are usually black or brown, skin-colored, pink, red or purple, often resembling moles – and some develop from moles. The condition is caused by intense, occasional UV exposure and repeat sunburns, especially in those who are genetically predisposed to the disease. If melanoma is recognized and treated early, it’s usually curable, but if it isn’t, the cancer can advance and spread to other parts of the body, where it becomes hard to treat and can be fatal.

Certain people are at greater risk for sunburns and for skin cancer. People with a fair complexion, blond or red hair, and blue, green or grey eyes– as well as people who live in hotter and sunnier climates, close to the equator – are more likely to develop precancerous skin conditions.

Everyone loves the healthy look of a bit of sun, but it’s important to exercise caution when spending time outdoors. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends using a broad-spectrum (protects from both UVA and UVB) sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or greater to protect uncovered skin. Perform regular self-checks of your skin to watch for any new skin growths or changes in existing moles or spots. See your doctor to report any suspicious changes in mole size or appearance.

Costs of a Tan

• One or more blistering sunburns in childhood or adolescence more than double a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life.

• The number of women under age 40 diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma has more than doubled in the last 30 years; squamous cell carcinoma among women under age 40 has increased almost 700 percent.

• Nearly 30 million people tan indoors in the U.S. every year; two to three million are teens and 71 percent are females.

• Just one indoor tanning session increases users’ chances of developing melanoma by 20 percent and each additional session during the same year boosts the risk almost another 2 percent.

• Indoor tanners have a 69 percent increased risk of early-onset basal cell carcinoma.

• People who first use a tanning bed before age 35 increase their risk for melanoma by 75 percent.

• Frequent tanners using new high-pressure sunlamps may receive as much as 12 times the annual UVA dose compared to the dose received from sun exposure.

To learn more, visit www.chestnuthillhealth.com, choose the “Health Resources” tab and type “skin cancer” in the search box. You will find an assortment of videos and podcasts, health tips– and more.

Brittany Sands, CRNP, is a certified nurse practitioner at Family Care Associates in Ft. Washington.