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How living in Arizona affects your risk of skin cancer

The weather is warming up and a lot of us are heading outdoors – for a hike, a walk, a baseball game, a patio somewhere. And that means we’re all getting a lot more sun.

But, does living in the Southwest mean we’re more susceptible to skin cancer? And what about those scalding summer temperatures we all know are just around the corner — does heat play a role? Or do we all stay indoors when the sun is the most dangerous?

Lisa Quale, a health educator the University of Arizona’s Skin Cancer Institute, joined The Show to talk more about the issue.

Full interview

LISA QUALE: Generally speaking, it's all about exposure to the sun and the more ultraviolet radiation from the sun your skin gets, the more likely your cells are going to mutate and potentially become cancerous. And you know, in the, in the desert where the, the weather is warmer, we're more likely to leave the house and spend time outside all year-round and we can do it with less clothing on our bodies for a long period of the year. And since we have such mild weather, we can also spend more time outside in shorts, tank tops, bathing suits, all of that. And with that comes, you know, all that exposed skin is now potentially at risk of skin cancer. So, in that sense, you know, Arizona, we do kind of get a double-whammy because we're also so close to the equator, there's a lot more intense.

LAUREN GILGER: Yeah. So, it's almost like our seasons are flip flopped here. Like, we might get more exposure to skin cancer throughout the spring, fall, winter as opposed to the summer.

QUALE: Exactly. That is definitely the way I think of it. Summer is the coldest time of year in Arizona because you're spending time inside just getting, you know, blasted by the AC. That's, that's what we gonna be inside and it's the rest of the year that we're out there enjoying, enjoying the beautiful weather and the beautiful sunshine.

GILGER: Yeah. So, is there a link at all between intense heat and developing skin cancer? Is it, is it about heat at all? It really isn't about heat. You know, it, it's more about being exposed to the sun. You know, it's, it's the ultraviolet radiation and that's, that's damaging our skin. It's the UVA and the UVB radiation from the sun that's doing the damage and that actually has no real temperature at all.

GILGER: So, I know we talk a lot about vitamin D deficiency, especially in women, and I wonder what that might look like in Arizona when we're talking about exposure to the sun, which is where we get vitamin D, right? Like, should we be less susceptible to those kinds of deficiencies here because we are exposed to the sun so often?

QUALE: In theory, in theory, you know, vitamin D, it's such a, you know, there are so many that are involved in and whether your vitamin D is, is high or low, you know, it has to do with your skin tone, it has to do with where you live in the world and we do need it to stay healthy. But one of the ways to get it is through sun exposure and we're telling people not to expose themselves to the sun. So it's a really complicated issue. And what I always end up telling people is if you're concerned about your vitamin D levels or, or you already know your levels are low, to get more of it in your diet.

GILGER: Is there a link at all, Lisa, between vitamin D levels and melanoma?

QUALE: The research goes all over the place. You know, I think a lot more research needs to get done on that. I've read things that, that say, you know, too much vitamin D has been linked to melanoma. I've read things that say not enough vitamin D is linked to skin cancer. I don't think there's a lot of hard evidence for or against it just yet, but it is definitely vitamin D is, is an important vitamin to, to have to be healthy and it's just about getting it the right way.

GILGER: So, let's talk about climate change briefly and then I have sort of a lightning round of, of what to know kind of questions for you. But is there an impact of climate change on skin cancer rates? Is this something people in your field are looking at?

QUALE: They probably are, you know, in theory, maybe it'll make skin cancer less of a problem just because people might end up spending more time just inside or in the shade just to stay cool. But I don't think the answer is really there just yet.

GILGER: OK. So some quick questions for you now that I think folks could benefit from. So first tell us like, what are the recommendations right now in terms of when we should start getting, you know, skin cancer screenings, like check for this kind of stuff? I know we're hearing earlier recommendations for mammograms, colonoscopies, things like that. What about skin cancer?

QUALE: It runs the gamut. Anybody who is at high risk of skin cancer, people who have already had it or people who have a family history of somebody else in their family having melanoma or maybe even just, you know, other non-melanoma skin cancers, they need to start going in earlier. But at a very general sense, I personally would recommend that people start going in, you know, maybe in their 30s. Again, they really have to sort of say, OK, I have fair skin, I've lived in Arizona my whole life. I've got, you know, lots of moles or, or spots on my skin that I don't, I can't keep track of. I'm gonna go start seeing a dermatologist early and just that skin exam because, you know, there's no reason not to.

GILGER: Yeah. Yeah. What about types of sunscreen? How do you tell what kind of sunscreen is going to be effective? How high should the SPF level be? How does this work?

QUALE: Yes. Oh my goodness. That is by far in a way, the biggest question that we get asked. And I think it's because it is such a, you know, you go to the store and there are so many different choices to be made. You know, what, what SPF should I have? What is broad spectrum, all of these things? So we've made it very simple: SPF of 30 or higher. And ingredients. Flip that bottle over and check the ingredients for either zinc oxide titanium dioxide or avobenzone.

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Lauren Gilger, host of KJZZ's The Show, is an award-winning journalist whose work has impacted communities large and small, exposing injustices and giving a voice to the voiceless and marginalized.