University of California San Francisco
Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center

Staying Safe in the Sun - A Dermatologist Helps Separate Facts from Hype

By | July 3, 2018

Staying Safe in the Sun - A Dermatologist Helps Separate Facts from Hype

Skin cancer is the number-one cancer diagnosis in the United States – it’s more common than breast, prostate, and lung cancers combined. Skin cancers can be divided into two types – nonmelanoma (basal and squamous cell carcinomas) and melanoma, with melanoma being the least common but most life-threatening. Each year, some 90,000 people are diagnosed with melanoma. Sarah Arron, MD, PhD, shares her thoughts on skin cancer prevention and helps separate the facts from the hype.

UCSF Magazine
Summer 2018

Read a digital flipbook of the entire summer issue of UCSF Magazine, featuring this and other stories.

Cover of UCSF Magazine's Summer 2018 edition

Which SPF?

The sun protection factor (SPF) number indicates the time it will take for UVB rays to redden your skin. I tell my patients to choose SPF 30 or higher because most people do not apply sunscreen as directed.

SPF moisturizer?

These are a great idea! It’s important that you like wearing the sunscreen enough to make it a part of your daily routine.

Eyes and lips?

Wear lip balm with SPF 15 and sunglasses with UV blockers in the lenses.

If being in the sun makes me happy, why should I protect myself from it?

Sun exposure can boost mood, and that makes sunshine addictive for some people. We like to rationalize that addiction by saying it must be healthy if it makes us feel or look good. But it’s not.

There is no such thing as a healthy tan, even though the tanning bed industry promotes its products that way. Until we dismiss the idea of a “healthy” tan, we’ll continue to see an epidemic of skin cancer in this country.

Are there other ways to prevent skin cancers?

Seek the shade and avoid outdoor activities during the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sports enthusiasts can go out in the early morning, take a break, and go out again later in the afternoon.

You can also buy UV protective clothing, including hats (in many styles), swim tights, swim shirts, sleeves for tennis players, and more.

Dermatologist conducting a skin cancer screening
Carina Woodruff, MD, examines a patient during a free skin cancer screening at UCSF. Photo by Barbara Ries
What about my vitamin D levels?

It’s true that one of the ways our skin makes vitamin D is through UV radiation. But there are many other ways to get vitamin D, such as leafy greens, fortified milk, and supplements. Moreover, it’s rare that individuals are so scrupulous about avoiding sun exposure that it causes vitamin D deficiency.

What does broad-spectrum mean?

It means the sunscreen provides protection from both types of damaging ultraviolet (UV) radiation – UVA and UVB. Both contribute to skin aging and skin cancers. UVB is the dominant sunburn and suntanning ray, whether the ultraviolet rays come from the sun or a tanning salon, while UVA penetrates deeper into the skin, causing premature aging and wrinkling. The SPF number measures only UVB protection, so you need to make sure your sunscreen specifies UVA protection as well.