We often think of caring for our skin as summer approaches. Truth is, we should care for and protect our skin all year round as skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States but, also, the most preventable.
Genetic predisposition such as fair hair, light eyes or family history of skin cancer and environmental factors like blistering sunburns in childhood, X-ray exposure and scarred areas come into play in regard to skin cancer risks.
There are three forms of skin cancer: Basal Cell Carcinoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and Melanoma. Basal Cell and Squamous Cell Carcinoma are the most common forms. They arise within the top layer of the skin usually on the face, ears, bald scalp and neck. Basal Cell Carcinoma frequently appears as a pearly bump or new skin growth that bleeds and doesn’t heal well. Squamous Cell Carcinoma often looks like a rough, scaly area or an ulcerated bump that bleeds.
Melanoma is the most serious and deadly form of skin cancer and often presents as a dark irregular spot. Common areas for melanoma to develop are the upper back, torso, lower legs, head and neck but can occur anywhere on the body. It may suddenly appear out of nowhere but can also develop from or near an existing mole. Moles that are new, rapidly growing, itch, bleed, change surface characteristics like color or shape are often the warning signs and warrant prompt attention. Early detection and treatment are essential since the cancer can spread to lymph nodes and internal organs.
There are precautions we can take to protect our skin health no matter what the time of year. First, eat healthy foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables provide the essentials so your skin can have all the important vitamins and minerals it needs. Keep hydrated, exercise and rest so that your skin’s natural defenses are at their peak performance. Next, use a broad spectrum sunblock of SPF 30 or higher. Apply evenly on all exposed areas of the body 15 minutes before heading out into the sun so your skin will absorb the block and work more effectively.
You want to avoid burning, so do all the things you’ve heard for years: wear and reapply a water resistant sunblock, wear sunglasses, avoid exposure during peak hours 10-4, wear a hat and protective clothing and don’t forget to use an SPF lip balm. Sun damage is cumulative. It’s never too late to start protecting your skin.
There are 2 different kinds of UV rays: UVA that penetrate deep into the skin to cause wrinkling and sun spots and UVB, the primary cause of sunburn. That’s why you want to look for a “broad spectrum” sunblock that will filter both types. Some effective key ingredients to look for are: Avobenzone, Ecamsule (Mexoryl SX), Titanium Dioxide, or Zinc Oxide.
We hear the letters SPF all the time but the meaning often confuses consumers. SPF refers to Sun Protection Factor and refers to how much protection a block gives to filter out the UVB rays (the ones that are more likely to cause the “surface burn”). The average fair person will burn in 10 minutes at noon wearing no sunblock. If they wear a sunblock with an SPF 5, this means that the block will allow them to stay out 5 times longer and they would burn after 50 minutes (5 multiplied by 10 minutes).
It is recommended that a minimum of SPF 30 be used at all times. With this protection it would take 5 hours to get the same amount of burn/damage you’d get if you went unprotected. Nonetheless, be sure to reapply every 2 hours since most tested blocks start to break down and lose effectiveness after this amount of time. Sunblock has a shelf life, check the expiration date.
A self-exam of your skin can’t replace an annual visit to your dermatologist, but it can help you notice the above early signs of skin cancer or abnormalities like moles that may be changing. If you see any signs of change bring it to the attention of your dermatologist immediately. Otherwise, it is recommended to see your dermatologist yearly or twice yearly if you have had a prior skin cancer. Remember, as common as skin cancer is, it is most easily treated when detected early and treated promptly.
Michael Eidelman, MD
Medical Director of Chelsea Skin and Laser
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine, Albert Einstein College of Medicine
Assistant Clinical Professor of Medicine, Mount Sinai School of Medicine