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Dr. Campbell: Sun safety - Sunscreen is not enough to prevent cancer

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Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the U.S. today. This year, approximately 76,100 new cases of melanoma will be diagnosed - the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Since exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) - from the sun and tanning beds - is a major risk factor for melanoma, wearing sunscreen is top of the list as a prevention aid. But now, a new study published in the journal Nature suggests that sunscreen alone is not enough to protect against the disease.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common type of cancer in the country is skin cancer - the two most common being basal cell cancer and squamous cell cancer.

Melanoma is a major concern in the U.S., with rates of the disease increasing for at least three decades. In an attempt to reduce the skin cancer burden, public health campaigns worldwide are trying to encourage people to cover up in the sun, as well as wear sunscreen on exposed areas of skin.

Melanoma is a type of skin cancer - one of the rarer types - but the cause of most skin cancer related deaths. Malignant melanoma is caused by an uncontrolled growth of skin pigment cells (melancytes).

Seventy-five percent of all skin cancer deaths are from malignant melanoma. It is most commonly found among fair-skinned people. However, people of all skin types can get it.

Sunscreens are products combining several ingredients that help prevent the sun's ultraviolet radiation from reaching the skin. Two types of ultraviolet radiation, UVA and UVB, damage the skin and increase your risk of skin cancer. Sunscreens vary in their ability to protect against UVA and UVB.

Ultraviolet A (UVA) is the longer wave UV ray that causes lasting skin damage, skin aging, and can cause skin cancer. Ultraviolet B (UVB) is the shorter wave UV ray that causes sunburns, skin damage, and can cause skin cancer.

On June 14, 2011, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) issued its long-awaited rules for sunscreen labels, enabling consumers to more easily identify sunscreens that offer safe and effective protection from the sun’s cancer-causing ultraviolet (UV) radiation. The new regulations went into effect in December 2012 for larger manufacturers.

Sunscreens may be labeled “broad-spectrum” if they provide protection against both UVA and UVB radiation according to FDA-sanctioned test methods.

Only broad-spectrum sunscreens with an SPF of 15 or higher may state that they help protect against skin cancer and early skin aging if used as directed with other sun protection measures.

A research team has analyzed the effects of UV light on 2-month-old mice with an abnormal BRAF gene, which is known to increase the risk of melanoma.

The researchers found that on unprotected skin, UV light directly damages the DNA of pigment cells in the skin, which raises the risk of melanoma. Specifically, the team discovered that exposure to UV light leads to abnormalities in a gene called p53, which usually works to prevent DNA damage from UV radiation.

After applying sunscreen to the skin of the mice, the team found it significantly reduced the level of DNA damage caused by UV radiation, which slowed development of melanoma.

However, the researchers also found that sunscreen failed to offer total protection from UV light and that the radiation was still able to cause abnormalities in the p53 gene, just at a lower rate. This argues for additional precautions for us when we are in the sun—covering up and avoiding the highest UV exposure times when the sun is the hottest.

To help us try to avoid skin cancer, it’s important to apply sunscreen (at least SPF 30 or higher—you should also get sunscreen that protects from both UVA and UVB).

This research provides important evidence that sunscreen has a role, but that you shouldn't just rely on this alone to protect your skin. It's essential to practice smart sun safety habits, whether at home or abroad, and take care not to burn. Sunburn is a clear sign that the DNA in your skin cells has been damaged and, over time, this can lead to skin cancer.

The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention recommend seeking shade when the sun is at its strongest and wearing sun-protective clothing, such as a wide-brimmed hat, wrap-on sunglasses and a T-shirt.

To get in touch with Dr. Campbell, you can head to his website, Facebook page or message him on Twitter.

Copyright 2014 WNCN. All rights reserved.

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