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Climate Change & Skin Cancer: Understanding the Risks and What We Can Do

July 22, 2021

The effects of climate change on skin cancer rates have been discussed for decades – studies pointing toward a probable correlation and threat of increased incidences. But how concerned should we be?

In honor of UV safety month, Dermatologist Sarah Beggs, MD, and Professor and Vice Chair of Medical Oncology and Chief of Cancer Services JHNJ, Ana Maria López, MD, MPH, MACP, FRCP explained how climate change has played a role in skin cancer incidences and what we can do to keep an eye on our skin cancer risk.

The Culprit: Ozone Depletion

Climate change and ozone depletion work hand in hand. One of the most important roles of the ozone layer in the stratosphere is to absorb and protect us from harmful ultraviolet radiation, particularly UVB rays, says Dr. Lopez. Due to excessive air pollution, some areas of the globe have faced ozone decreases of nearly 40 percent.

UVB rays yield more energy than UVA, and experts believe they cause most skin cancers, explains Dr. Beggs. This is the most significant danger with ozone depletion. However, more UVA rays are also being introduced.

“While we used to view UVA rays as harmless, we now know they can also contribute to skin cancer,” continued Dr. Beggs. “UVA is not as well blocked by clothing and windows, and it better penetrates the top layer of skin. This is why it’s so important to wear a broad spectrum (covering UVA and UVB rays) sunscreen.”

Recent reports have shown increases in both basal cell carcinoma, the most common and often better manageable type of skin cancer, and melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, says Dr. Lopez. Melanoma incidence, specifically, has increased at approximately 3-7 percent per year in fair-skinned individuals. “While it’s impossible to know the exact causes, some data have aligned with geographic areas that suffer more from ozone depletion and greater sun exposure, and we have to remain aware of that risk.”

What’s most concerning, Dr. Lopez says, is that melanomas are fast-spreading and, without proper skin checks, can easily go missed.

Who is at risk?

The simple answer: everyone.

For many people, though, climate change is exacerbating an already heightened risk of skin cancer. Other prevalent risk factors at play include closeness/proximity to the equator (and overall UV exposure); fair skin; skin that burns easily; red or blonde hair; genetics/family history; history of tanning (whether it’s outside or artificially, in a tanning bed); age; immunosuppression; medical radiation exposure; and unhealthy lifestyle behaviors, such as smoking and drinking.

Paying Attention to Skin Damage:

Skin damage occurs a lot quicker than most people realize, says Dr. Beggs. Any evidence of a sunburn or tan is evidence of damage. The skin is very skilled at repairing itself, but only to a certain extent.

Plus, while cancer is the most dangerous impact of skin damage, it doesn’t stand alone, notes Dr. Lopez. Frequent sunburns and tans also cause skin to age prematurely (causing wrinkles, dryness, brown spots, etc.).

Regular skin self-exams, in which you check for changing/new moles and other irregularities, are highly recommended, even for those not at high risk, suggests Dr. Beggs. (To learn more about checking your skin at home, click HERE.)

What can we do?

“Know your family history, get your skin checked, and take the proper precautions to prevent sun damage,” says Dr. Lopez.

Dr. Beggs recommends practicing these tried-and-true sun-protective habits:

  • Seek shade when outdoors
  • Wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen of SPF 30 or greater (all year)
  • Wear sun-protective clothing, such as wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, breathable long sleeves and/or coverups (that aren’t loosely weaved, lacey, or otherwise full of holes)
  • Avoid extensive periods outdoors during peak UV hours (around 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.)

Many health experts/groups – such as Physicians for Social Responsibility and The Medical Society Consortium on Climate and Health – also advise limiting contributions to climate change as much as possible, notes Dr. Lopez. The ozone layer has the power to heal itself, if we support it. Simple measures that can help reduce our carbon footprint include walking or biking short distances, rather than driving; cutting back on the use of plastic bottles; and efficient power use (i.e., not leaving lights and other devices on/plugged in when not in use).

Doing so may also reduce other health risks linked to climate change, such as lung cancer, COPD, and cardiovascular disease.

“You only have one body,” says Dr. Lopez. “And it’s never too late to start protecting yourself!”

For more information on Dermatology services at Jefferson Health - New Jersey, click HERE. To learn more about Cancer services offered at Jefferson Health - New Jersey, click HERE