Physical Health

Sun Safety and Skin Cancer

Numerous studies have found that skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the United States, with melanoma as one of the most common cancers diagnosed among young adults.

  • Ultraviolet (UV) light exposure outdoors or indoors (tanning beds) can increase your risk of skin cancer.

  • UV exposure is a major contributor to visible skin aging (wrinkles, leathery skin, etc.).

  • Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States.

  • The two most common skin cancers (basal cell and squamous cell carcinomas) are highly curable, but can be disfiguring and costly. They can often occur on the face and require highly specialized surgery to treat!

  • Melanoma (the third most common skin cancer) can be deadly and is one of the most common cancers in young adults.

Sources for the information on this page:
1. Skin Cancer. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Published 2014. Accessed July 11, 2016.
2. Hillhouse, J. 2007. "Keep the skin you were born in!"
3. Tanning. Skin Cancer Foundation. Published 2016. Accessed February 14, 2017.

What are the factors that contribute to a higher risk of skin cancer?

Risk factors for skin cancer include:


  • Light skin, or skin that burns, freckles or reddens easily

  • Large number of moles

  • Blue or green eyes

  • Blond or red hair

  • Personal or family history of skin cancer

  • Sun exposure

  • History of sunburns, especially in early life

  • History of indoor tanning

    • The average tanning bed gives off 2 to 10 times more UVA radiation than the sun

    • Using tanning beds before the age of 35 increases a person's risk for developing melanoma by 75%

What are sun safety practices that can prevent skin cancer?

  • Seeking shade

  • Wearing:

    • Sunscreen

      • Choose broad spectrum UVA and UVB, SPF 30 or higher

      • Reapply every 2 hours (even with higher SPF) and after swimming, sweating or toweling off

    • Protective clothing

      • Look for sun protective clothing with Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) rating

      • Long sleeves/pants that are kept dry and darker colors are best

    • A hat

      • Wide-brimmed hats are best (ears are often neglected and subject to UV damage)

    • Sunglasses

      • Sunglasses serve to cover your eye area, which can be another site of UV damage

What kind of sunscreen should I look for? Are some ingredients harmful?

Be sure to select a sunscreen that is broad-spectrum, water-resistant and SPF 30 or higher.  Mineral-based sunscreens are recommended for people with sensitive skin. Even if you use water resistant sunscreen, re-apply it every 2 hours or after swimming or sweating.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates over-the-counter drugs including sunscreen. Claims that describe sunscreen ingredients as toxic have not been proven. However, the association between sun exposure and skin cancer is well established and sunscreen has been proven as an effective prevention method. So, is sunscreen safe to use? Yes! Click here for a full discussion of this issue on the American Academy of Dermatology website.

If I have darker skin, do I need to wear sunscreen?

Sunscreen is recommended for people of all skin tones. Skin cancer can affect anyone. In people with darker skin, skin cancers are more often diagnosed in later stages making them more difficult to treat. This can be due to skin cancers more commonly showing up in areas that do not have as much sun exposure such as palms, soles, groin, inside of mouth, and under nails.

What about getting enough Vitamin D?

Vitamin D amounts from sun exposure are inconsistent and the risk of skin cancer remains. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends obtaining Vitamin D from a healthy diet, fortified foods or beverages, and/or Vitamin D supplements.

I’m just going for a short walk on a cloudy day– can I skip the sunscreen?

If you are going outside for even a short time, you should wear sunscreen as even short durations can result in cumulative exposure to damaging UV rays. Also, a “quick trip” sometimes turns into a longer trip than expected resulting in more sun exposure than intended.

It is a good idea to wear sunscreen even if it is cloudy. Up to 80% of sun’s UV rays can still reach your skin through the clouds.

Is tanning without a burn ok? Can a "base tan" protect me from sunburn?

Any change in your natural skin color is a sign of potential skin damage.

A “base tan” is estimated to offer an SPF level of 3-4 and is inadequate for protection from sunburn. The risks of obtaining a “base tan” outweigh the benefits as sunscreen is much more effective.


Did you know? Brown University has been recognized for skin cancer prevention.

Brown University has been recognized as a Skin Smart Campus by The National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention. Brown promotes skin cancer prevention policies and education and has pledged to keep indoor tanning devices off of campus and affiliated buildings.  The Indoor Tan-Free Skin Smart Campus Initiative is sponsored by the National Council on Skin Cancer Prevention in response to the 2014 U.S. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent Skin Cancer which concluded that there is a strong association between increased risk of skin cancer and indoor tanning use.

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