How can I help prevent sun damage and ultimately, skin cancer?

Nothing can completely undo sun damage, although the skin can sometimes repair itself. So, it's never too late to begin protecting yourself from the sun. Your skin does change with age; for example, you sweat less and your skin can take longer to heal, but you can delay these changes by limiting sun exposure.

Maintaining healthy skin

  • Stop smoking: People who smoke tend to have more wrinkles than nonsmokers of the same age, complexion, and history of sun exposure. The reason for this difference is unclear. It may be because smoking interferes with normal blood flow in the skin.
  • Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater 30 minutes before sun exposure and then every 2 to 3 hours thereafter. Reapply sooner if you get wet or perspire significantly.
  • Select cosmetic products and contact lenses that offer UV protection.
  • Wear sunglasses with total UV protection.
  • Avoid direct sun exposure as much as possible during peak UV radiation hours between 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Perform skin self-exams regularly to become familiar with existing growths and to notice any changes or new growths.
  • Relieve dry skin using a humidifier at home, bathing with soap less often (instead, use a moisturizing body wash), and using a moisturizing lotion.
  • Become a good role model and foster skin cancer prevention habits in your child. Eighty percent of a person's lifetime sun exposure is acquired before age 18.

Understanding UV index

You might see ratings from the UV index on weather reports. The numbers represent the risk of unprotected sun exposure to the average person. You may think that the lower index numbers mean you do not have to take action, but the risk of sun exposure to unprotected skin always exists. You might also think that cloudy days mean you can spend unlimited time in the sun, but this is not true.

0-2: Low

At the low stage, experts advise you to wear sunglasses if the sun is bright. Use sunscreen and protective clothing if you burn easily.

3-5: Moderate

At the moderate stage, you should cover up and use sunscreen. Avoid direct sunlight at midday, when the sun is most powerful. Stay in the shade.

6-7: High

At the high stage, you should use all protections against sun damage (protective clothing, wearing a hat and sunglasses, using sunscreen). Limit time in the the sun from 10 am to 4 pm.

8-10: Very high

At the very high stage, you should be extra careful, using clothing, hats, sunscreen and sunglasses. Avoid the sun between 10 am and 4 pm. Your skin can burn quickly at this stage and will be injured.

11 or higher (11+): Extreme

At the extreme stage, you should use all methods of prevention. It will only take minutes of exposure to result in a burn. Do not go out in the sun from 10 am to 4 pm. Wear protective clothing, a hat, sunglasses and sunscreen. At this stage and all others, remember that snow, sand, and water all increase UV exposure by reflecting the sun’s rays.

When should I call a doctor about sun damage?

If you notice any changes in your skin that worry you, contact your doctor at once. It is important to perform regular skin checks to notice any new spots or changes in existing lesions. It is also important to get regular eye exams. Contact your doctor if you have changes in vision.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 10/10/2019.

References

  • Tung R, Vidimos A. Melanoma. In: Carey WD, ed. Cleveland Clinic: Current Clinical Medicine 2010. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:section 3.
  • Tung R, Vidimos A. Nonmelanoma skin cancer. In: Carey WD, ed. Cleveland Clinic: Current Clinical Medicine 2010. 2nd ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:section 3.
  • Environmental Protection Agency. The UV Index Scale. Accessed 12/4/2019.
  • Skin Cancer Foundation. Sun Protection. Accessed 12/4/2019.

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