Jun 21, 2013 12:00 PM by By Serena Gordon
FRIDAY, June 21 (HealthDay News) -- Think "skin cancer" and blame immediately goes to the sun. Justifiably so -- though not totally, skin doctors say.
"Hands down, sun exposure is the biggest risk factor for skin cancer," said Dr. Sherrif Ibrahim, an assistant professor of dermatology at the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York. "And it's a cumulative risk. The more exposure you've gotten, the bigger the risk. The skin doesn't know if you're out one time for an hour or 12 times for 5 minutes at a time. Your skin keeps a running meter."
That's important to know as summer officially begins, according to skin health experts at the American Academy of Dermatology.
Each year, more than 3.5 million basal and squamous cell skin cancers, known as non-melanoma cancers, are diagnosed in the United States, according to the American Cancer Society. These types of skin cancer aren't as deadly as melanoma, which affects about 75,000 U.S. residents annually. About 9,000 people die from melanomas and 2,000 from non-melanoma skin cancers each year, according to the society.
However, the sun isn't the only thing that can be problematic. Tattoos, certain chemicals, other diseases and possibly even those better-for-the-environment light bulbs all have been linked to skin cancer.
And people who think tanning beds are safer than soaking up the sun should think again, Ibrahim suggested.
"There's an unquestionable link between tanning booths and skin cancer," Ibrahim said. "There's been an enormous surge in the popularity of tanning booths, and with it the average age of people with melanomas is much lower. I had a 22-year-old patient just the other day."
This is because it doesn't matter if the ultraviolet light comes from the sun or from an artificial source. Dr. Alan Fleischer, a dermatology professor at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., explained that "the kind of light produced by tanning beds isn't better or worse than natural sunshine, but people may get more and longer exposure, especially in areas where outside, they might display more modesty."
Even getting a manicure can expose you to ultraviolet light.
"Ultraviolet nail treatment units do produce UV light, but the risk is quite small," said Fleischer. The lights are used to help gel or regular polishes set or harden.
Despite the low risk, the American Academy of Dermatology still recommends putting sunscreen on your hands before you get a manicure.
Even things that seem unrelated to UV light -- such as getting an organ transplant or a tattoo, or having an autoimmune disease -- have been linked to skin cancer diagnoses.
People who've had an organ transplant have an extremely elevated risk for skin cancer -- up to 200 times higher than others, according to Ibrahim.
This stems from the medications that must be taken after a transplant to suppress the immune system. As a result, the immune system, which normally fights off growing cancer cells, may not be strong enough to do its job.
Organ transplant recipients should talk to a dermatologist to get an idea of their baseline risk for skin cancer and find out how often they need to be screened. Ibrahim said that some high-risk people who've had organ transplants need screening every three to four weeks.
Although tattoos aren't known to increase the risk for skin cancer, tattoos can make it harder to detect cancer-related changes in moles. If you're considering a tattoo, make sure there aren't any moles in the area you're thinking about inking, according to experts from the American Academy of Dermatology.
Like people who've had an organ transplant, those with autoimmune diseases often take medications that suppress their immune system. These drugs can also increase their chances of developing skin cancer, Fleischer said.
The experts also pointed out other potential sources of skin cancer risk, including:
Both Fleischer and Ibrahim recommended wearing sunscreen regularly (applying liberally and reapplying often), avoiding the midday sun, seeking shade, wearing a wide-brimmed hat outside and covering up as much of your body as possible to lessen your sun exposure.
Though other factors can and do increase risk, "there's no question that the sun is the biggest risk factor for all types of skin cancer," Fleischer said.
The American Academy of Dermatology has more about skin cancer.