Skin and sun: protect your skin from the risk of cancer

Summer is here. The beach and short clothes are going to be on the agenda for the next few weeks, which will favor the exposure of the skin to the sun. But exposure of the skin to UV results in a fairly complex cascade of events. In the short term, the action of UVB rays is very positive, because they trigger a series of biochemical reactions that will allow the production of vitamin D. This vitamin is absolutely essential for the maintenance of good health, which means that it is very advantageous to expose oneself to the sun for short periods (5 to 15 minutes in summer) to take advantage of its benefits.

Tanning does not protect the skin from the dangers of the sun

But during excessive exposure to the sun, on the other hand, UV rays cause significant damage to skin cells by generating free radicals, inflammation and genetic mutations in the DNA of these cells. In response to this damage, the cells somehow try to protect the skin from further damage by orchestrating the production of melanin. But this tan offers only weak protection, equivalent to a protection factor of 3 for sun creams. In other words, repeated and excessive exposure of the skin to the sun, whether it is tanned or not, promotes the accumulation of genetic mutations that can trigger the development of cancer.

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Too much sun drastically increases the risk of skin cancer

This major impact of the sun on the risk of mutations is strikingly illustrated by a study published in the journal Science. Using skin biopsies taken during blepharoplasties (excision of excess skin around the eyelids) from people aged 55 to 73 as starting material, a team of British scientists examined the presence of mutations in 74 genes known to be involved in the development of squamous cell carcinoma. The results are staggering: even if she is healthy and shows no signs of cancer, each square centimeter of skin nevertheless contains more than 100 mutations in one or another of these oncogenes!

Overall, this means that even in a healthy person, around 25% of the cells in sun-exposed skin have already reached a pre-cancerous stage and are therefore at very high risk of acquiring the few additional mutations that will trigger the onset. of a cancer.

The same rules apply to skin and body protection

We are all carriers of pre-cancerous cells, but cancer can be prevented by reducing the rate at which these mutations appear and by keeping these cells in an early stage, without danger to health. In the case of skin cancers, it is obviously a question of avoiding unnecessary exposure to the sun and using protective creams. But the same reasoning applies to all cancers: it is possible to delay the progression of precancerous cells by adopting good lifestyle habits that will prevent them from accumulating mutations, in particular by avoiding smoking, maintaining a normal body weight, eating lots of vegetables and being physically active.


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Martincorena I et al: High burden and pervasive positive selection of somatic mutations in normal human skin. Science 348:880-6.


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