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I never put on sunscreen. Am I destined for skin cancer?

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The question

I'm blessed with a complexion that never burns, just tans. So I never apply sunscreen. Am I at risk of getting skin cancer even though I don't burn?

The answer

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Sunscreens reduce the risk of skin cancer and other negative health effects, such as premature skin aging, wrinkling and discoloration by preventing harmful ultraviolet (UV) light from damaging the skin.

While it's fortunate that you don't burn while in the sun, you are still at risk of developing changes in the skin that can lead to cancer. Burns indicate that the skin is more sensitive and may mean there is a higher risk of cancer developing over time. Regardless of whether you burn or not, UV radiation still penetrates your skin and can damage it. Sunscreen and other protective lifestyle measures are your best bets to keep your skin healthy and looking young.

To understand why you are still at risk, it's important to think about what sun rays can do to your skin.

Sunlight is made up of UV rays that are known to cause changes that can lead to premature skin aging, eye damage (cataracts) and sunburns.

Excess UV radiation can also damage the skin's DNA, which can lead to mutations that can cause skin cancer. Because of this, UV has been identified as a human carcinogen or cancer-causing agent. UV radiation is the main cause of non-melanoma skin cancers such as basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma.

So if you don't apply sunscreen, you are still putting yourself at risk of developing some forms of cancers, even if your skin isn't burning.

To prevent this, choose a sunscreen that offers protection to both UVA and UVB radiation (broad-spectrum sunscreen).

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Pick one with a SPF (sun protective factor) of at least 15 or more. And if you're spending a prolonged period of time outside, swimming or sweating, be sure to reapply regularly. If your skin is more sensitive and you are prone to burns, consider a sunscreen with a SPF of at least 30. Remember to always check your sunscreen's expiration dates as they can lose effectiveness over time.

Sunscreen is only one aspect of prevention when it comes to keeping your skin healthy. Along with sunscreen, try these tips that will prevent excess UV radiation exposure:

  1. Avoid the sun when the rays are strong: In general in North America, the strongest rays are from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., so seek shade during these times or limit the time you spend outdoors.
  2. Spend time in the shade: While shade does not offer full protection, it can be limit direct exposure to UV radiation.
  3. Cover up with clothing: Long-sleeved shirts and pants can be helpful, and hats with wide brims are not only fashionable but can protect the face, ears and neck. Dark clothes may be more protective than light-colored clothing.

While the strongest UV radiation is between the months of April and October in North America, remember that the sun's rays can damage skin all year round, so protect yourself in the winter as well. Also, UV rays can reach you on cloudy and hazy days too and they can reflect off of surfaces such as water, cement, sand and snow, so take extra caution if you are in these environments.

The changes in your skin's DNA caused by UV radiation can take years to develop, so by protecting yourself now, you will decrease your risk of developing skin cancer in the future.

Send family doctor Sheila Wijayasingheyour questions at She will answer select questions, which could appear in The Globe and Mail and/or on The Globe and Mail web site. Your name will not be published if your question is chosen.

The content provided in The Globe and Mail's Ask a Health Expert centre is for information purposes only and is neither intended to be relied upon nor to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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