June 6, 2018

How much sun is too much sun?

Family Medicine

Sun Safety and Skin Cancer Risk

The Surgeon General of the United States recently published a “Call to Action” published on the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services site, discussing the health risks associated with skin cancer. The report identified that melanoma was linked to the largest number of skin cancer deaths in the United States2. The report went on to say that efforts to reduce skin cancer risk factors have been less than successful  and the Surgeon General recommended renewed efforts to help educate Americans on skin cancer risks and preventable social behaviors the increase those risks.

Exposure to the sun, and more specifically ultra-violet (UV) radiation in sunlight is strongly linked to skin cancer 1,3-4. The Surgeon General’s “Call to Action” report can be found at this link: The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer, and reminds all Americans to avoid exposure to UV radiation from sunlight. Avoiding UV exposure by tanning or using tanning beds seems very easy to accomplish, but avoiding all sunlight seems nearly impossible!

Reducing your risk

Here are a few things we can consider when avoiding or reducing our exposure to UV radiation:

  • Wear tightly woven protective clothing when possible to cover large areas of skin; think about covering your back, neck, arms and legs
  • Wear a hat that provides adequate shade to the whole head; ball caps don’t work as well for this purpose, as they don’t typically cover ears and neck
  • Wear sunglasses to protect eyes; help protect your children’s eyes too, or better yet, have them wear a large hat!
  • Seek shade when possible; look for well-shaded parks, pools or picnic areas
  • Avoid playing outside or doing outdoor activities when the sun is directly overhead; peak times to consider: 11:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.
  • Use Sunscreen

Teaching our children these healthy sun-behaviors early in their lives will hopefully help activate health habits for a lifetime, and sunscreen is the corner stone of these habits.

Let’s look a bit closer at sunscreen choices and types

In the United States, sunscreen is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and sold over the counter in most pharmacies, retail shopping centers and grocery stores. The FDA ensures that all sunscreen includes labeling to identify the sun protection factor or SPF. Another labeling requirement from the FDA on all sunscreen is known as the spectrum protection. This testing outlines if the sunscreen will provide effective protection from UVA and UVB light. If a sunscreen protects both UVA and UVB its labeling will state “broad spectrum”.

Hint: Look for HIGH SPF (sun protection factor) always select 15 or greater, and also look for broad spectrum, which will provide protection from both UVA and UVB light radiation.

Sunscreens come in lotions, sprays and even sticks. Choosing the right type for you and your family is up to you, but here are a few hints about where these different forms work best:

  • Lotions work well for large areas and can be used sparingly on faces, ears and throats – being cautious around eye, nose and mouth
  • Sprays work well on large areas as well, but many should not be sprayed directly on the face for most brands. Sprays other advantage? They are easy to apply to your own back or hard to reach areas.
  • Stick forms of sunscreen work well on faces and ears, but are less useful for large areas. Also, be careful when applying around nose, mouth and eyes.

Summer is here, and we can protect ourselves from the risk of skin cancer by just making a few changes to the way we enjoy the sun. So enjoy the summer and happy sunscreen applications!!



Armstrong BK, Kricker A. The epidemiology of UV induced skin cancer. J Photochem Photobiol B. 2001;63:8–18.

U.S. Cancer Statistics Working Group. United States Cancer Statistics: 1999–2010 Incidence and Mortality Web-based report. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Dept of Health and Human Services and National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health; 2013. http://www.cdc.gov/uscs Accessed January 20, 2014.

Armstrong BK, Kricker A. How much melanoma is caused by sun exposure? Melanoma Res. 1993;3(6):395-401.

Berwick M, Lachiewics A, Pestak C, Thomas N. Solar UV exposure and mortality from skin tumors. In: Reichrath J, ed. Sunlight, Vitamin D and Skin Cancer. Vol. 624. New York, NY: Springer; 2008:117-124.