It’s summer, which means you’re probably tired of hearing that you need to apply sunscreen before you head out the door, and then every couple of hours after that.
I know it might sound like overkill, but it’s actually the minimum of what we should be doing to protect ourselves from the cancer-causing and aging effects of the sun’s ultraviolet rays. Even though they’re easily prevented, a new study illustrates just how common those effects are.
A team of dermatologists at Kaiser Permanente in California followed nearly 500,000 patients for up to 10 years. Half had already developed actinic keratosis, a precancerous rough, scaly lesion caused by years of unprotected sun exposure.
These lesions usually form on the face, ears, scalp, neck, forearms, and back of the hands – the spots that typically get the most exposure to the sun. They can serve as an early warning sign of skin cancer, so they’re removed when dermatologists discover them.
In the study, among patients who were younger than 50, those diagnosed with actinic keratosis were almost seven times more likely to develop squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, during the decade-long study period.
That risk was eight times higher among patients older than 50 who had at least one actinic keratosis removed. And the more lesions patients had, the more likely they were to develop skin cancer during the follow-up.
Even more, the older the patient, the sooner the cancer was diagnosed after their actinic keratosis was found. Ten percent of patients in their fifties with an actinic keratosis were diagnosed with skin cancer seven to eight years later. But it took only three to four years for patients in their seventies and one to two years for those in their eighties.
The good news: The study suggests that more people have a greater understanding and respect for the sun’s effects on skin. While you may feel like you’re confronted with sunscreen messaging at every conceivable turn, it wasn’t all that long ago that most kids and adults moved through summer oblivious to the mere notion of protecting themselves from the sun.
“Parents today are more likely to protect their children from undue sun exposure, and the use of sunscreen is now more mainstream,” Dr. Sangeeta Marwaha, a coauthor of the study, said in an interview.
If you’re a parent, know that it’s especially critical to protect young kids from the sun. It’s estimated that up to 80% of a person’s lifetime sun exposure occurs before the age of 18. That said, it’s never too late to begin adopting sun-protection habits.
Beyond applying a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 year-round, even on cloudy days, try to avoid being outside during the peak sun hours of 10 AM to 4 PM.