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Happy 'Don't Fry Day'! How to protect your skin while enjoying the outdoors

This is the time many people start "working on their tan." Skin cancer experts are urging them to reconsider.
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Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with almost 5.5 million cases diagnosed in Americans each year.Getty Images stock
/ Source: TODAY

It’s “Don’t Fry Day” in America — an annual reminder to protect your skin as summer arrives.

For 12 years now, a coalition of skin cancer organizations and researchers have declared the Friday before Memorial Day as a key time for sun safety awareness.

The goal is to get people to avoid tanning intentionally — whether outside or in a salon, said John Antonishak, executive director of the National Council for Skin Cancer Prevention, the group behind the effort.

“It’s the unofficial kickoff for summer and sometimes this is the first time in the season that people want to go out and soak up the sun. We ask them not to do that,” Antonishak told TODAY.

“We want them to protect their skin today and every day — not just on the Friday before Memorial Day. Safe practice all year long.”

This year, as the coronavirus pandemic impacts beaches, the organization is also urging beach goers to practice good social distancing.

Still, public health officials are concerned that people are so focused on avoiding COVID-19 that they will forget about sun safety as they head to the shore.

Skin cancer is the most common type of cancer in the U.S., with almost 5.5 million cases diagnosed in Americans each year — more than breast, colon, lung and prostate cancers combined, the organization noted.

Just five blistering sunburns in your youth can increase your risk of developing melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 80%, one study found.

“It was a life-altering moment. It was really like a gut punch. Being faced with death at such a young age really puts a lot into perspective,” said Elizabeth Hazuka, who was diagnosed with melanoma twice before turning 30.

“Tanning beds are terrible,” said Sharman Dudley, 45, who needs a thorough skin cancer check every three months after four of the many atypical moles that cover her body turned out to be melanoma.

Hazuka and Dudley, who both live in Washington, D.C., are just two of the many skin cancer survivors TODAY has profiled in recent years.

All wanted people to know the disease is preventable in many cases and to heed their warnings about exposure to ultraviolet rays.

To reduce your risk:

  • Don’t tan intentionally
  • Generously apply sunscreen and reapply every two hours
  • Wear sun-protective clothing
  • Seek shade during peak sun times of the day, usually between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m.
  • Use extra caution near water, snow and sand because the reflection from those surfaces can increase UV exposure

“We want people to go outside, but just do it smartly,” Antonishak said.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a great increase in people changing their behavior from when we first started… We know we’re making a big difference. We wish it were faster, of course.”