Skin Cancer Prevention for Movie Crews
IATSE Local 479 Summer Safety Series: with the arrival of Summer people who work outdoors face a number of additional health safety dangers, from weather extremes to risk of disease. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides extensive information on different forms of skin cancer, risk factors, symptoms, and prevention methods.
Film crews spend large portions of their careers working outside in full exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Regardless of the season or amount of cloud cover, you are constantly exposed to UV radiation during daylight hours and it’s all too easy to disregard simple safety measures during the heat of battle.
Skin cancer prevention is an especially important topic to the members of IATSE Local 479, as more than a few members have experienced various forms of skin cancer and in 2017 one of the officers in Local 479’s Young Workers Committee passed from complications due to melanoma. He was only 30 years old.
Don’t let the cost of cumulative sun exposure be your life.
What is Skin Cancer?
Like most other forms of cancer, skin cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal skin cells. It occurs when damage to skin cells causes mutations that lead to that growth.
There are three types of skin cancer caused by overexposure to UV radiation: basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma. Nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer annually, and around 76,000 new cases of and 9,000 deaths from melanoma every year in the United States.
Melanoma typically appears on areas of the body that receive sun exposure, but not always. If you have concerns you may want to have a screening.
Skin Cancer Screening
Screening for skin cancer involves a full body inspection by a trained professional for aberrant tissue.
Doctors look for certain clues to identify spots and moles that may be symptoms of skin cancer:
- irregular shape
- jagged edges
- uneven coloration
- larger than a pea
- the spot has changed noticeably over time
While the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force (USPSTF) does not currently recommend widespread, routine screenings for skin cancer, people who are at risk or have concerns should always speak with a doctor about what’s best for them. People who are at risk should discuss setting up regular inspections with their doctor or dermatologist.
Are You at Risk?
Although people with fair skin which burns easily and does not tan are among those at highest risk, it is a dangerous misconception that people with dark skin are immune to skin cancers. Anyone whose occupation places them in constant exposure to UV radiation may be at risk.
Men are more likely to get skin cancer, as they are statistically exposed to more UV radiation than women, and the majority do not use cosmetics which may offer some protection from UV light.
Skin Cancer Prevention
Always be seeking a method to reduce your exposure by staying out of direct and indirect sunlight.
Stopping UV radiation before it gets near your body is the best method. Find a place that is well shaded, preferably without exposure to secondary sunlight reflected off of water, glass, or other planar surfaces (like pavement). Examples include inside of buildings, under exterior roof coverings, beneath umbrellas, or in the shade of trees. The most dangerous times for exposure is between 10am and 4pm.
If you can’t get away from direct / indirect UV radiation the next best method is blocking the radiation before it reaches your skin.
Covering bare arms and legs can greatly reduce your exposure to UV radiation. Fabrics with tight weaves offer the best protection. Some manufacturers offer specialized UV radiation protection gear with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating of 50 and higher. Darker colors may offer more protection than lighter colors. Most t-shirts provide less than 15 SPF of protection, even less if they’re wet.
Wear a wide-brimmed hat that shades your face, your ears, and the back of your neck. Baseball caps are good at blocking sunlight from your eyes, but a hat with a continuous brim provides more protection for your entire head and body.
During summer months temperatures tend to soar, and crews switch to shorts and t-shirts, resulting in full exposure of their arms and legs. This is when topical skin coverings are essential.
Sunblock is typically sold as a lotion or as a spray, and is available in a variety of SPF ratings. Studies indicate that spray-on sunblock may wear off more quickly than the lotion style, especially when exposed to water or sweat. Experts recommend a thorough re-application of sunblock every two hours, as it is prone to wear off or wash off from perspiration, exposure to water, or rubbing.
Set medics can provide crews with sunblock, but it’s a good idea to have some set aside for your personal use.
The CDC recommends the use of an SPF15 or higher.
The level of protection between SPF ratings is marginal. While SPF 15 blocks 93% of all incoming UVB rays, an SPF of 30 only blocks four percent more – 97% of all incoming UVB rays.
People who are fair skinned, burn easily, and do not tan, may well require the extra level of blockage afforded by an SPF 100 (which blocks 99% of all UVB rays). Those who have previously been treated for skin cancer typically elect to use sunblock with higher SPF ratings.
Finally, it’s important to know that sunblock has an expiration date, so the old bottle of Banana Boat that has been rattling around in the back of your car since Y2K needs to be replaced. Sunblock typically has a shelf life of no more than 3 years, and tends to degrade when exposed to high temperatures.
Also look for products designed for application to your lips, as this skin is often overlooked when applying sunblock and is prone to sun damage.
Even with the highest SPF ratings, most sunblocks are more effective at blocking ultraviolet B rays, while ultraviolet A rays penetrate deeper into the skin. UVA rays suppress the immune system and are associated with a higher risk of causing melanoma.
In short, sunblock is not a magical elixir – any time you are exposed to sunlight for extended periods you are at risk for sun damage and skin cancer.
Whenever possible use all the sunblock methods afforded to you, as described in this article.