5 Things You Must Know About Skin Cancer

Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. speaks to reporters during a tour of the Red Ribbon Ranch Oil Lease, San Joaquin Facilities Management Inc., Monday, July 28, 2008, in Bakersfield, Calif. Three-time melanoma survivor John McCain had a spot of skin removed from his right cheek early Monday that he said would undergo a biopsy as a precaution. AP Photo/Mary Altaffer

When presidential candidate John McCain had a skin spot removed from his face yesterday, he took the opportunity to pitch a different message to Americans.

McCain stumped for sunscreen, suggesting we all wear it.

But preventing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, requires you know more than just how to slather on some questionably effective, high-SPF sunscreen. Here is what you need to know:

1. Melanoma is deadly

More than 1 million new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed each year, according to the American Academy of Dermatology, which calls skin cancer an unrecognized epidemic. About 100,000 of these cases are melanoma, which kills some 8,000 U.S. residents a year. And the problem is growing. Particularly troubling: The melanoma incidence rate for children (18 and under) jumped 84 percent from 1975 to 2005, according to the National Cancer Institute.

2. Melanoma is largely preventable

Getting sun is part of our culture. It can also be the death of us. The sun causes 90 percent of all skin cancers. Limiting mid-day exposure or covering up is the surest way to avoid getting it. What about vitamin D? The sun indeed can provide your body with vitamin D, but you can also get this vital nutrient easily from milk, orange juice, salmon, tuna, eggs and Swiss cheese. And think of your children: Childhood sunburns raise the risk of adult-onset skin cancer.

3. Sunscreen is no cure-all

The sun sends two types of harmful rays our way: UVA and UVB. Both cause skin cancer, but many sunscreens protect only against UVB. Worse, studies now show that during the day, sunscreen penetrates deeper into your skin, actually allowing the sun to do more damage than if you hadn't applied it. Health experts now recommend reapplying sunscreen every two hours, regardless of what it says on the label. Worse still, according to new research published last month, many sunscreens that had been deemed worthy are in fact ineffective and actually contain harmful chemicals known to penetrate the skin and exit in urine. Amid all the conflicting research, health experts still advise using ample sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, applying it 30 minutes before going out, and reapplying every two hours.

4. Men fry more

Men get sunburned more than women, in part because they're more likely to work outside and in part because they are less likely to wear sunscreen or protective clothing, studies find. Men over 40 have the highest exposure to the sun's harmful rays — ultraviolet radiation, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. While both men and women bare their bodies in equal numbers recreationally, "Men are more likely to get occupational sun exposure than women," says Alan Geller of the Boston University School of Medicine. No surprise then: About 60 percent of people diagnosed with melanoma, the most deadly form of skin cancer, are white men over 50.

5. Suntans are not healthy

UV rays fry inner layers of your skin, causing your body to release more melanin pigment to darken the outer layers as a protective measure. Tans lead to wrinkles, however, and they do not protect against skin cancer. Naturally darker skin offers some protection. So melanoma is less common in African-Americans, Latinos, and Asians, but it is deadlier for them because it is more likely to develop undetected. Tanning salons are no safe haven. "UV radiation from the sun, tanning beds, or from sun lamps may cause skin cancer," according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). "While skin cancer has been associated with sunburn, moderate tanning may also produce the same effect."

Robert Roy Britt

Robert is an independent health and science journalist and writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. He is a former editor-in-chief of Live Science with over 20 years of experience as a reporter and editor. He has worked on websites such as Space.com and Tom's Guide, and is a contributor on Medium, covering how we age and how to optimize the mind and body through time. He has a journalism degree from Humboldt State University in California.