During winter we’re more covered up with jackets and long pants, so it may surprise you to learn that melanoma skin cancer is increasing at a faster rate in Utah than in most of the country. But the truth is, even in the winter we still need to practice sun safety and protect our skin.
Why We’re At Greater Risk
Utahns are particularly at risk for melanoma due to our higher altitude, the reflection of the sun’s rays off of the snow during winter months, and the fact that many of our people are fair-skinned because of their European descent. Our high incidence of skin cancer may also be associated with poor air quality. Air pollution contributes to the breakdown of the protective ozone layer, which results in more UV (ultra-violet) rays in our atmosphere.
Nearly all skin cancers (90%) are caused by exposure to UV rays, which we get from the sun or from indoor tanning beds. Melanoma is the least common skin cancer, but also the most devastating, causing the vast majority of skin cancer deaths. When found early, survival rates for melanoma exceed 95%, but melanoma that’s spread to the organs has a survival rate of only 15-20%. Thus, prevention is key.
Poor Air Quality Is One Risk Factor For Skin Cancer
Ground-level ozone — the bad kind of ozone — peaks mid-day when the sun’s rays are the most intense. People should avoid outdoor physical activity during those peak hours of air pollution and sun exposure. Additional skin cancer prevention strategies include regular, daily use of sunscreen - even on cloudy days! Among those with a personal or family history of skin cancer, regular skin examinations are warranted to detect precancerous and cancerous lesions.
These proven skin cancer prevention techniques are even more important for children, who are often playing outside and being exposed to UV radiation and its harmful effects. It's estimated that the risk of melanoma doubles after five or more sunburns. Parents play a vital role in reducing their children's future skin cancer risk by protecting their skin from the sun now. And while we may associate skin cancer with older age, skin cancer rates are increasing the fastest in young people age 25-40.
Some Simple, Yet Effective Sun Safety Tips
Here are a few effective ways you can practice sun safety in the winter and reduce your risk of skin cancer:
- Avoid the sun at the peak times of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., when UV rays and air pollution are the most dangerous
- Use broad spectrum (UVA/UVB) SPF 30 sunscreen daily - even on cloudy or snowy days!
- Cover up with a hat and sunglasses. When skiing, helmets and googles are great protective clothing for safety and for avoiding the sun
- Get regular skin examinations to detect precancerous and cancerous lesions, especially if you have a family history of skin cancer
So enjoy the wintery months and Utah world-famous powder and mountains but use sunscreen and practice simple, everyday sun safety tips. Your skin will thank you in the long run!
Dr. Elizabeth A. Joy, MPH, Medical Director over Community Health for Intermountain Healthcare, also contributed to this article.