This week, the US surgeon general reinforced that we should all stop sunbathing and start protecting our skin - a new report indicates that the number of cases of deadly melanoma has increased 200% in the last 30 years.

Even the House of Representatives is paying attention, passing the Sunscreen Innovation Act with the goal of hurrying along the FDA approval process for new sunscreen products. Not to be outdone, the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) got on board with recommendations to reduce these rates in the future, including providing shade in public places.

Skin cancer is by far the most common cancer in the United States, affecting 1 in 5 Americans. Melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, accounts for over 60,000 of the 5 million cases seen each year. Over 400,000 cases are reportedly due to tanning bed use. Despite a black label warning on the beds and the oft repeated warning that using one is madness, nearly 1/3 of white women ages 16-25 use a tanning bed each year. You may look fantastic with your sun kissed summer skin, but there's a trade off.

I vividly remember a friend from childhood dismissing her mother's warnings by saying "by the time I get skin cancer, they'll have found a cure." The idiocy of that statement is what got me to finally start wearing suntan lotion, but the statistics are damning as well. Skin cancer is not something that happens in old age. Melanoma is the most common cancer among adults ages 25-29 and the second most common in ages 15-24. Sun safety is particularly important in children and young adults. A recent study showed that women with five or more blistering sunburns in their youth had a greater likelihood of developing all forms of skin cancer, including melanoma.

According to the CDC, two-thirds of US adults report getting a sunburn in 2010. That's millions of Americans putting themselves at risk because they didn't want to wear a hat or put on sunscreen. There is a dangerous misconception that only the ghostly pale are affected by skin cancer. In reality, people of color have a higher mortality rate from cancer. So let's all maybe listen when the Surgeon General tells us too much UV radiation is bad. It's time to start protecting ourselves from (too much of) the sun.

How to stay sun safe:

Current recommendations include applying 1 oz of at least 30 SPF lotion every two hours. Use your common sense, if you're going to be swimming or sweating a lot, reapply more often. Cover your children in suntan lotion. Wearing lotion should be like putting on a seat belt - non negotiable.

We often talk about wearing sunscreen (of SPF 30+) to protect against harmful UV and UVA rays, but there are additional ways to protect yourself. Avoid direct sun exposure between 10 am and 4 pm. Stay in the shade when possible, but especially between those hours. Make sure you cover up with protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses (protecting your eyes is important, particularly for those with light colored eyes). It probably goes without saying at this point that tanning beds are inadvisable.

Keep in mind that the Skin Protection Factor (SPF) number reflects how long one coating will protect you for. SPF 50 will last longer than SPF 10, it's not a 5 fold increase in protection. If you burn after 10 minutes in the sun, SPF 15 sunblock will protect you for 150 minutes (the formula is time to burn x SPF - the number will be different for every individual). How long lotion stays affective is obviously also influenced by sweating, swimming, and dousing your head with water because it feels like you are living on the sun. Don't put on SPF 70 once in the morning and assume you're protected for the rest of the day.


How to check yourself:

Skin checks should be a regular part of your yearly medical exams but you can also do your part to check yourself for signs of skin cancer. Please don't hesitate to go to your doctor if you notice anything suspicious. Skin cancer is treatable - the sooner you identify it, the better your outcome will be.

Do a thorough body check and keep an eye out for the ABCDE's

A: Asymmetry - If you draw a line through the mole, do the two halves match? Asymmetric moles can be indicative of skin cancer.

B: Border - The borders of cancerous moles tend to be uneven.

C: Color - Another warning sign can be freckles or moles with a variety of colors (multiple shades). Melanomas may become red, blue, or other colors.

D: Diameter - Melanomas are usually larger than 6 mm (the eraser on a pencil) but may start smaller.

E: Evolving. Any change in size, color, or shape, or development of a new symptom (bleeding, itching, crusting, or an unhealing ulcer) may also be a warning sign.

(the above are from In The Summertime, When the Weather is Hot)