9 Ways to Lower Skin Cancer Risk

Woman on beach with long dark hair wearing hat.

It's never too early to worry about sun damage: Just one sunburn during your youth doubles your chances of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Everything under the sun you need to know about protecting your skin.

Get Your Vitamin D Elsewhere
  • Sunlight can help your body produce vitamin D, but it's safer to get it in other ways. "The risks that sun exposure poses just don’t outweigh the benefits," says Yale Medicine dermatologist Amanda Zubek, MD​, PhD. Safer sources include:  
  • Supplements—Vitamin D supplements are processed the same way by the body without upping your skin cancer risk. The recommended daily dose for adults is 800 IU per day.
  • Foods—Cereal, cheeses, yogurt, salmon and tuna deliver vitamin D.
  • Milk—Fortified milk is another good source for getting more vitamin D in your diet.

With summer right ahead, you may be planning to relax poolside or at the beach. But enjoying summer's longer and sunnier days outdoors means your skin is vulnerable to sunburn. Unless you take the right precautions, sun exposure (even if you don't get scorched) can damage your skin, causing wrinkles, age spots and even skin cancer.

While sun safety is important all year long, it's essential to protect your skin from top to toe this time of year, says Kathleen Suozzi, MD, a Yale Medicine dermatologist. "The sun’s rays are stronger during the summer months. Summer also brings with it a carefree state of mind that sometimes leads people to being more laid back about sun protection than they should be," she says.

Since skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States—one in five people will be diagnosed with it in their lifetimes—it’s important to practice sun safety before heading outdoors. The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage the skin in three ways: They can cause hyperpigmentation or sun spots (photodamage). The rays can also break down the skin’s collagen and elastin, which means it will atrophy and wrinkle before its time. Worse yet, too much sun is associated with several types of skin cancer. Experts say just one sunburn during your youth doubles your chances of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Dr. Kathleen Suozzi, MD
Kathleen Suozzi, MD, says sunscreen needs to be part of your daily skincare routine.

"There is concern that rates of melanoma have been steadily rising over the last 30 years," says Yale Medicine dermatologist Michael Girardi, MD, professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. He recently received a major innovation award as the co-developer of a new sunscreen technology. It is made with micron-sized biodegradable polymers that don't easily wash off and don’t penetrate the skin, like current formulations. The technology, which is designed to make sunscreens safer and more effective, may one day be included in commercial sun-care products.

Of course, sunscreens can only work well if they're applied correctly. All too often people skip sunscreen or only slather it on their faces and upper arms, leaving their backs, torsos, legs and feet totally exposed. To help you enjoy sunny days safely, Drs. Suozzi, Girardi and other Yale Medicine dermatologists offer these tips during National Melanoma/Skin Cancer Detection and Prevention Month. Their advice can help you avoid sun damage and reduce your chances of getting skin cancer:

  • Don't rely on edible sunscreens. A variety of vitamin and herbal cocktails are now marketed as sun protection. "There is no scientific evidence that these edible sunscreens provide adequate UV protection," warns Dr. Suozzi. "Use a topical sunscreen instead."  
  • Generously slather on high SPF sunscreen. Use a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen (SPF 30 or greater) every day. Be sure yours hasn’t expired, and reapply every two hours as well as after swimming or sweating.
  • Your sunscreen needs protection, too! On a 90-degree day, the car trunk or your beach bag is no place to stow your sunscreen. Heat breaks down its effectiveness. It's better to carry it in a bag with you. And when you're at the park, pool or beach, stash sunscreen in a cooler bag next to beverages and snacks.
  • Seal your lips…from the sun’s rays, that is. Lip balms, glosses and sticks often contain SPF ingredients. What’s more, opaque lipsticks contain pigments that help block harmful rays, according to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD). More opaque formulas protect better.
  • Create some shade. Clothing made of tightly woven fabric with a high ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating can create a physical barrier that protects your skin from the sun. Long sleeves or pants, sunglasses and a hat with a wide brim will help shade you, too.
  • Avoid peak sun hours. The sun is most damaging to skin between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., so plan your outdoor activities before or after the sun is at its strongest.
  • Say "no" to tanning beds. There's no such thing as a “healthy base tan.” A tan is an injury and means the skin is damaged, says Yale Medicine dermatologist Amanda Zubek, MD, PhD. Ultraviolet light tanning beds can increase your risk of melanoma by 59 percent and squamous cell carcinoma by 67 percent, according to the AAD.
  • Beware of UV rays at nail salons, too. Studies have shown that UV lights used to dry nail polish at salons are a risk factor for developing skin cancer on the hands. That UV exposure can also make hands look spotty and wrinkly.
  • Check yourself out. Using a full-length mirror, scan your skin for spots that look suspicious (unusually shaped moles that are changing shape or are black, red or pink in color, for example) and bring them to the attention of your dermatologist or family physician for further evaluation. If you've previously had skin cancer, you should have your skin checked annually by a dermatologist, Dr. Suozzi says. Click here for more information about cancer screenings at Smilow Cancer Hospital.

Learn more about dermatology care at Yale Medicine.