Skin Cancer and Sun Protection for Firefighters

In February 2018, researchers from the “Firefighter Cancer Initiative” published new information about the risk of skin cancer for firefighters. According to this research, firefighters may have a higher risk of both melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers compared to the general population.1 According to the study, many firefighters are also diagnosed with skin cancer earlier in life (around 42 years old) compared to the general population (around 64 years old).1

Why do firefighters have a higher risk of skin cancer?

Like other people who work outside, firefighters are frequently exposed to the sun’s UV rays, one of the leading risk factors for skin cancer. Along with on-duty (and off-duty) UV exposure, some firefighters may come in contact with carcinogens (cancer-causing chemicals) when responding to fires. Among firefighters, research shows that both UV and carcinogen exposures may lead to an increased risk of skin cancers.1

The role of UV exposure

In the new research study, skin cancer rates were somewhat different between firefighters. For example, firefighters who had been diagnosed with skin cancer were more likely to report that they often wore shorts (instead of long pants) while outdoors. Similarly, firefighters who had been diagnosed with melanoma had a greater history of sunburns.1 Together, these results suggest that UV exposure (such as wearing shorts or frequent sunburns) may play a role in the firefighters’ diagnosis of skin cancer. Therefore, to reduce their risk, firefighters may want to limit their UV exposure, as well as their contact with carcinogens (see below).

Sun protection and skin cancer prevention

To help reduce their risk of skin cancer, firefighters can take the following steps to limit both UV and carcinogen exposure:

  • When responding to fire calls, if possible, try to take breaks in shaded or covered areas, especially when the sun’s rays are strongest (usually midday and during the summer).2
  • Broad-spectrum sunscreens are designed to protect your skin from two types of cancer-associated UV rays: UVA and UVB.4,5 Both on and off-duty, consider using a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF-15 or higher, and reapplying at least every two hours.2,3 (*Special considerations should be given to aerosol and spray-based sunscreens, and sunscreens containing flammable ingredients.)
  • Both on and off-duty, protect your skin from UV exposure with long sleeves and pants, sunglasses, and/or hats. Because UV exposure is most common on the face, ears, and neck, be sure these areas are covered.2 You can also buy special clothing with built-in sun protection and UV-blocking properties.5 (*Be sure to consult your clothing/gear regulations for on-duty use.)
  • After a fire-response, research shows that carcinogens can linger on the skin, clothing, and gear.1 To protect your skin, try to decontaminate your gear at the scene, and be sure to clean all gear after each response. You can also use wipes to remove soot from your skin at the scene, and shower after each call.3
  • During a response, be sure your skin is fully covered by your gear (including around your ear flaps, collar, and hood).3 Many firefighters say that their neck gets the most accidental soot/debris exposure, so be sure that this area is fully protected.
  • To monitor your skin for any changes, perform frequent self-skin exams, and visit your healthcare provider regularly for full-body skin checks.6

Firefighters can practice sun protection

In their professional lives, firefighters can encounter two skin-cancer related exposures: UV rays and carcinogenic chemicals. While working to protect their communities, firefighters should also take steps to protect themselves from skin cancer. Small changes (such as wearing sunscreen, cleaning your skin and gear, and checking your skin regularly for changes) can go a long way in reducing a firefighter’s risk of skin cancer. If you are concerned about skin cancer, talk to your healthcare provider, and visit our skin cancer information page to learn more.

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