University of Vermont

Cultivating Healthy Communities

Take Steps to Prevent Skin Cancer

Did you know that one in five Americans is expected to develop a form of skin cancer in his or her lifetime, making this the most common form of cancer in the U.S.?

These are not very good odds, but there are simple ways to reduce your risk. The easiest way is to keep your skin covered. If you are going to be outside, wear long sleeves, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, shoes and socks.

Okay, you're probably thinking that it's often too hot to wear the long sleeves and pants. You should at least wear the wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses. In addition to the sun protection they provide, the hat will keep you cooler and the sunglasses make being in the sun more comfortable. Besides, squinting without sunglasses causes wrinkles, and who needs more of those?

For added protection, especially if you are fair-skinned, consider sun-protective or UV-protective clothing. Some outdoor clothing manufacturers sell lightweight pants and shirts, hats and other apparel with a UPF or Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) of 15 to 50-plus that help block out harmful rays.

You also need to apply sunscreen every day, even cloudy days, when you are going to be outside, reapplying every two hours to any skin that is not covered with clothing. Use a water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays and has a SPF or Sun Protection Factor of at least 30. If you have sunscreen that is more than three years old, replace it.

Many people don't use enough sunscreen or else fail to reapply it during the day. You will need to use at least one ounce to cover all your exposed skin. Rub it in well and allow about 20 to 30 minutes after applying for it to soak into your skin and form a protective layer before you head outside. Sunscreens with titanium dioxide and zinc oxide actives are effective immediately.

Seek shade when outside. The sun's rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. If your shadow is shorter than you are, try to stay out of the sun.

Are you near water or sand? All these reflect and intensify the damaging rays of the sun as does snow in winter months.

Don't use the excuse of not protecting yourself from the sun because you are seeking vitamin D. You get that through food. Salmon, mackerel, sardines and many other fish and seafood varieties, as well as dried shiitake mushrooms and eggs, naturally have high levels of vitamin D. Milk and some cereals also are vitamin D-fortified.

Check your skin for signs of skin cancer. Watching for changes to moles and your skin is key to detecting skin cancer in its earliest, most treatable stages. If you see something suspicious, make an appointment with your dermatologist.

Go to the American Academy of Dermatology web site at for more information, including how to perform a skin self-exam. The site also has a body mole map that can be downloaded for tracking changes in your skin.

Enjoy the wonderful sunshine, but do take care of your skin. And to paraphrase Smokey the Bear, remember, only you can prevent skin cancer.