Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. For regularly updated information on a variety of health topics, please visit, the AAFP patient education website.

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Am Fam Physician. 2006;74(5):815-816

Why is the sun so bad for my skin?

The sun’s rays, which are called ultraviolet A and ultraviolet B rays (UVA and UVB rays), damage your skin. This leads to early wrinkles, skin cancer, and other skin problems.

Being in the sun often can lead to skin cancer over time, even if you don’t get sunburned. A suntan is the body’s way to protect itself from the sun’s harmful rays.

Are tanning booths safer?

No. Tanning booths use ultraviolet rays. The makers of some tanning booths may say that they use “harmless” UVA rays. But both UVA and UVB rays cause skin damage. UVA rays take longer than UVB rays to damage the skin, but they go deeper into the skin than UVB rays.

Where is skin cancer most likely to occur?

Most skin cancers occur on parts of the body that are exposed to the sun repeatedly. These areas include the head, neck, face, tips of the ears, hands, forearms, shoulders, back, chests of men, and the back and lower legs of women.

What are the risk factors for getting skin cancer?

You have a higher risk of getting skin cancer if you:

  • Have fair skin and red or blond hair

  • Have light-colored eyes

  • Sunburn easily

  • Have many moles, freckles, or birthmarks

  • Work or play outside

  • Were in the sun a lot as a child

  • Have had a serious sunburn

  • Have family members with skin cancer

  • Tan in the sun or with a sunlamp or have tanned that way in the past

How can I prevent skin cancer?

The key to preventing skin cancer is to stay out of the sun and to not use sunlamps. If you are going to be in the sun, you should wear clothes made from tightly woven cloth so the sun’s rays can’t get to your skin. You also should stay in the shade when you can. Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face, neck, and ears.

Remember that clouds and water won’t protect you from the sun’s rays. The sun’s rays can also reflect off water, snow, and white sand.

Tips on preventing skin cancer

  • Limit the amount of time you spend in the sun, especially from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are the strongest.

  • Do not use tanning booths or sunlamps.

  • Wear protective clothing and hats when you are in the sun.

  • Check your skin every month for signs of skin cancer.

  • If you see an area on your skin that looks unusual, ask your doctor about it.

Should I use sunscreen?

If you can’t stay out of the sun or wear the right kind of clothing, you should use sunscreen to protect your skin. But don’t think that you are completely safe from the sun just because you are wearing sunscreen.

How should I use sunscreen?

Use sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 or more. Put the sunscreen everywhere the sun’s rays might touch you, including your ears, the back of your neck, and bald areas on your scalp. Put more on every two to three hours and after sweating or swimming.

Where can I get more information?

Your doctor

American Academy of Dermatology

American Academy of Family Physicians

American Cancer Society

National Cancer Institute

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Copyright © 2006 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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