“I’m extremely concerned about how climate change is affecting skin cancer rates,” notes Dendy Engelman, MD, a dermatologist and Mohs surgeon at the Shafer Clinic in NYC. Between 2000 and 2010, basal cell carcinoma rose 145 percent while squamous cell carcinoma went up by 263 percent, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. And data from the National Cancer Institute shows that melanoma, long considered the most fatal form of skin cancer, increased threefold over the last four decades. While an uptick in awareness and screening certainly contributes to those numbers, climate's role in them is undeniable for three reasons.
1. We’ve lost ozone protection
Ozone is the earth’s version of SPF, and it's a critical component of the stratosphere and the ultimate shield. “It absorbs UV radiation and keeps other carcinogens further away from our bodies,” says Dr. Engelman. The problem is we’ve been chipping away at it for decades via greenhouse gases, resulting in a five to six percent depletion, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In turn, says Dr. Engelman, it’s allowed more “UV radiation to come through the atmosphere and reach our skin.” Research estimates that a one percent reduction in thickness of the ozone layer increases the incidence of squamous cell carcinoma by 3 to 4.6 percent, basal cell carcinoma by 1.7 to 2.7 percent, and melanoma by 1 to 2 percent.
FWIW, ozone depletion has slowed thanks to the Montreal Protocol, a landmark 1987 international agreement that banned ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons, and a new global amendment extends to hydrofluorocarbons, another potent greenhouse gas. That said, scientists say we probably won’t be able to get levels back to where they were in the ‘70s.
2. It’s getting (really) hot
Been outside recently? It’s...not pleasant. “We are seeing warmer climates in a broader area, and longer summers,” says Orit Markowitz, MD, a dermatologist and skin cancer specialist at OptiSkin in NYC. The average global temperature has increased by a little more than 2° F during the last century, according to NASA. This is due in great part to the release of greenhouse gases, which trap heat. And this seems to amplify UV rays, says Dr. Engelman, as “studies have shown that the deadly effects of UV radiation are stronger in higher temperatures.” Models predict that a 3.6°F increase in ambient temperature, for example, could raise skin cancer incidence by 11 percent globally by 2050.
It’s not just the heat itself that’s the problem, though—it’s how we behave in the heat that can increase our skin cancer risk. People tend to spend more time outdoors with less protective clothing in warmer months, which is why one study found that temperatures above 72°F more than tripled sunburn risk—damage closely correlated with skin cancer.
3. There’s more pollution in the air
There are many sources of air pollution, but we can’t help but bring up the particular source that’s hanging in the air right now: Wildfires burned more than twice as much land area per year from 2000 to 2018 than those from 1985 to 1999. The smoke signals from this summer’s fires stretched from coast to coast and laid bare something we usually aren’t able to see.
The smoke itself contains many hazardous components common in air pollution, including gases like volatile organic compounds, particulate matter like black carbon, and chemicals like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons. All are on the rise—particulate matter, for example, increased by 20 percent between 1990 and 2013—and all are linked with the formation of skin cancer.
So, now what?
So—you guessed it—seeking shade and wearing sunscreen is still the best protection we have against skin cancer. You’ll need to be more on top of it than previous generations, though, on account of the stronger UV rays. For her part, Dr. Markowitz likes mineral blocks, which “sit on top of your skin to protect you right away.” Plus, she says, they’re kinder to the environment—which, as you now know, is actually an important part of mitigating skin cancer rates. (We’re refraining from recommending a product here because the best thing you can do for the planet is just use the one you have right now.)
The most important skin advice? Do something—anything—to enact change on a personal and global level. Vote for climate-conscious candidates at every level that will use policy to protect this little orb we call earth. Reduce your carbon footprint in the ways that you can. (As we’ve said before, be that person who installs solar panels or swears off plastic or commutes on a bike instead of in a car. Every little shift is meaningful.)
As Dr. Engelman puts it, “we need to make more sustainable choices for our planet now, rather than just adapt to the changing world around us.” Diligent SPF’ing is good. Diligent SPF’ing and taking climate action? Much better.
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