Neil Box, PhD
Neil Box, PhD

During COVID19, getting outside for socially distanced activities is one of the few forms of available recreation. But more people getting out also means more sun exposure, and so during Skin Cancer Awareness Month, University of Colorado Cancer Center reached out to one of our members, Neil Box, PhD, president of the Colorado Melanoma Foundation, to learn about the risks and how to stay safe.

“COVID19 is dangerous but skin cancer can kill you too,” says Dr. Box. “For some people, a sunburn could be as dangerous as a virus exposure.”

According to Dr. Box, while the cancellation of outdoor music festivals and weekends in the mountains reduces sun exposure, these reductions are balanced by increases in people taking advantage of work-at-home flexibility for everyday outdoor activities like walking, biking and gardening.

“Especially during the work week, people are probably outside more in total,” Dr. Box says. “With Colorado’s mix of altitude and sunshine, even a 15- or 20-minute coronavirus ‘brain break’ sandwiched between Zoom meetings could result in enough UV exposure to get a sunburn and increase skin cancer risk.” And according to Dr. Box, while we may remember our sun-safe behaviors for longer activities like an all-day hike, it’s easy to overlook these things for a short walk.

“We still recommend sun safety during short times outside,” Dr. Box says. “Put on a hat, use sunscreen, wear sun safe clothing, put on sunglasses.”

In the time of the COVID19 midday mental health break, Dr. Box suggests putting these sun protection supplies (sunscreen, hat, sunglasses, light long-sleeved layer) in a grab-it-and-go box by the door. He also suggests adjusting your timing.

“It’s really that middle of the day protection you have to be rigorous about, from about 10am to 3pm,” Dr. Box says. During these peak hours, the level of UV in visible light can almost triple compared to earlier or later in the day, so the time to sunburn can be dramatically shorter.

“Maybe consider going for your walks or gardening before ten or after three,” Box says. “Even then it’s still sensible and healthy to be sun-smart.”

Added to increased sun exposure, Dr. Box points out that many people are delaying or missing healthcare visits, both the routine checks that could detect a new skin cancer and the follow up appointments to have suspicious skin changes removed and diagnosed.

“People are delaying seeing their physician because they don’t want to go near a hospital with a bunch of COVID19 patients. But that means there’s likely a whole stack of delayed diagnoses for melanoma and other cancers, as well,” Dr. Box says.

Combining the factors of more sun exposure with delayed diagnosis means that a slowing pandemic could be met with an acceleration of melanomas diagnosed at later, more dangerous stages.

“Our attention is laser-focused on this virus, but we shouldn’t take our eyes off these other important health issues,” Dr. Box says. “Expanding our attention to include all of our health behaviors, including sun exposure, can help ensure we don’t meet the end of the coronavirus pandemic with an epidemic of later stage cancer diagnoses, like melanoma where the patient could be dramatically worse off.”