updated 7/18/2006 9:49:13 AM ET 2006-07-18T13:49:13

Skin cancer rates and deaths are increasing dramatically around the world.  One in five Americans will develop skin cancer during their lifetime, and one American dies from it every hour. Experts say that by far the most important ways for us to protect ourselves are by minimizing sunlight exposure and avoiding indoor tanning beds or lamps. Along with sun protection, a healthy diet may help.

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Ozone depletion seems to be leaving us more vulnerable to damage from ultraviolet (UV) radiation. This radiation causes formation of highly reactive “free radicals” within our bodies, damaging our cells in ways that increase the chance for cancer to develop.  In theory, antioxidants like beta-carotene and other carotenoids might stabilize free radicals and end the damaging chain reactions they start.

Recent studies have shown very mixed results on the impact of blood and dietary levels of antioxidant nutrients like the carotenoids, vitamins E and C, and selenium. These nutrients are absorbed from a balanced diet that focuses on colorful fruits and vegetables and whole grains, along with beans, nuts and seeds. Some studies have shown less skin cancer among people who eat diets rich in these substances, while others show no effect.

Limiting fat, lowering cancer
Limiting dietary fat is a step supported by a number of studies as a smart move to lower risk of skin cancer. High-fat diets may increase cancer risk by suppressing the immune system, according to some evidence. Polyunsaturated fats, such as most vegetable oils, may pose the biggest risk. Consuming more polyunsaturated fat means that our body cells contain more polyunsaturated fat, which is a relatively unstable fat more vulnerable to free radicals than other fats.

Excess alcohol has been linked with greater risk of melanoma skin cancers by some researchers. In one study, those who drank the most alcohol had 65 percent greater risk of melanoma than those who drank the least.

Apply sunscreen often
Sunlight exposure reportedly causes 80 to 90 percent of skin cancer, which is why experts recommend sunscreens with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of at least 15. SPF of 30 to 60 may even be preferable, especially if you will be spending significant time outdoors.

Researchers say that most of us apply too little and forget that we need to reapply it every three hours when we’re outdoors, and sooner if we swim or sweat. Experts also note that while sunscreens are a valuable tool, their use is just one part of an overall strategy that also includes limited time in the sun and protective clothing.

Some consumers believe that if they don’t tend to get sunburns, sunlight is not damaging their skin and putting them at risk.  It’s true that highest skin cancer risks seem to fall on those with fair skin or family history of skin cancer. But studies now show that our risk is based on the intensity of sunlight exposure over a lifetime, even for those who tan but don’t burn.

Experts sometimes say, “The only safe tan comes from a bottle.” They are referring to sunless self-tanners, which contain an ingredient (DHA) that oxidizes on the outermost layers of the skin, giving the look of a tan.

Lots of veggies to lower cancer risk
The American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR) recommends a mostly plant-based diet with five to 10 daily servings of a variety of fruits and vegetables to lower overall cancer risk. That includes some protection against skin cancer, but be sure to take the other vital precautions as well: avoid sun and indoor tanning, cover up with hats and long-sleeved clothing, and use sunscreen liberally.

Nutrition Notes is provided by the American Institute for Cancer Research in Washington, D.C.

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